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Want to lose weight? This is your best weapon

Most of us know that if you want to lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories. Now comes the hard part: sticking to that calorie-reduced diet so you'll reach your goal.

According to new findings, you're more likely to stay on track – and lose more weight – if you don't skip meals, avoid eating lunch out and, most important, keep a food diary.

The study, published online in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tested the impact of self-monitoring and eating patterns on weight change among 123 overweight women, aged 50 to 75, who were enrolled in a year-long weight-loss trial.

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Women who reported skipping meals lost almost eight fewer pounds than those who ate at regular intervals during the day.

Skipping meals or fasting can trigger hunger and overeating later in the day.

Participants who went out for lunch at least once a week lost five fewer pounds compared with their peers who ate out less often. Eating out frequently at all mealtimes resulted in less weight loss, but the strongest association was with the midday meal.

Eating in restaurants means that you have less control over how food is prepared and the portion sizes served.

Dieters who lost the most weight were those who faithfully kept food journals. They lost about six pounds more than those who did not record their food intake. Women were told to record everything they ate, accurately and completely. They were also advised to always keep their food diary with them.

Several studies suggest that a food diary is the best weapon for effective weight loss. In 2008, researchers found that dieters who tracked their food intake six days a week lost twice as much weight as those who kept food records one day a week or less.

A food diary works because it makes you aware of what, how much and why you are eating. It highlights not only the foods you are eating, but also the foods you may not be eating enough of.

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Recording your food intake also helps to deter overeating and prevent mindless nibbles. If you have to write it down, you will probably think twice about going for seconds or sneaking a few bites from your child's meal.

Keeping a journal is also a good way to uncover emotional eating patterns and identify triggers that prompt overeating.

If you want to lose weight, I strongly recommend that you keep a daily food diary regardless of the diet plan you follow. It's something I have all my clients do for at least the first four weeks of their program.

You can purchase any number of diet and fitness journals in bookstores. But a food diary does not need to be fancy. You can jot down your food intake on a pad of paper.

Or you can use a calorie and diet tracker on your smartphone or tablet. Top-rated apps include Calorie Counter, MyFitness Pal, Sparkspeople, Lose It! and MyNetDiary.

If you plan to design your own food journal, the following tips will help to make it an effective tool for sticking to your weight-loss plan.

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Start with the basics

A food diary should include the time you ate, the food consumed and the portion sizes eaten. Include beverages, sweeteners and condiments.

Document your hunger level before and after eating. Did you let yourself get too hungry before eating? Did you stop eating when you felt satisfied and no longer hungry, or were full?

Add the details

If you're trying to determine if emotions trigger eating, write down how you felt before, during and after eating. Did you eat because you were bored, stressed, happy, angry or depressed?

If you have diabetes, record your blood-sugar results. Doing so can show how your blood sugar responds to different meals and snacks. For some people, it's also helpful to track grams of carbohydrate.

Update as you go

Record your food intake after each meal. Do not wait until the end of the day, when you are more likely to forget a few foods. Always carry your food diary with you.

Write one day in advance

Many of my clients use a food diary not only to track their intake, but also to plan their next day's meals and snacks.

Writing down the foods and portion sizes you intend to eat tomorrow allows you to be organized and stick to your plan.

Measure, then record

Be accurate with portion sizes. The best way to know how much you are eating is to measure it. I advise my clients to measure and weigh their foods regularly at first to become familiar with serving sizes.

Portion sizes tend to creep up over time, so it's a good idea to refresh your memory every so often by measuring your foods again.

Include every bite

A food diary works only if you are honest. Write down every morsel that passes your lips. Look for "extras" that can add up and slow your rate of weight loss.

For best results, record seven days a week. For many people, weekends are the most important days to keep tabs on food intake.

Review and reflect

Look back and evaluate your food diary. Take notice of what you are doing well at and what you need to work on.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct.

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