Tips for Keeping a Food Journal - Part 1Sep 27, 2023
After so many years of tracking my Points for Weight Watchers, or then macros for Keto, I have encountered – in myself – a real resistance to keeping a food journal. Once I decide to do it, I manage to track breakfast. I may or may not be journaling by the time I hit lunch. I certainly do not make it to a second day keeping a food journal. If I could see through your screen, would I see heads nodding? This lead me to find Tips for Keeping a Food Journal that would advance my efforts and not stymie them.
Here is your Roadmap to Keeping a Food Journal - Part 1
Journaling brings awareness which brings success
Katherine McManus, a contributor to Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing, wrote that “a food diary can be a useful tool in this process. It can help you understand your eating habits and patterns, and help you identify the foods — good and not-so-good — you eat on a regular basis. Research shows that for people interested in losing weight, keeping a journal can be a very effective tool to help change behavior. In one weight loss study of nearly 1,700 participants, those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records.” Study here.
So now my interest is piqued. I found further evidence that this journaling is important because it brings awareness to the many facets of what you are consuming. For myself, I left out the weighing and measuring part because I didn’t want this to just be another diet attempt – which is what weighing and measuring my food feels like. The weighing and measuring is also the reason I very rarely journal beyond breakfast on the first day that I have decided to do it. Remember that rebel part of me. So what do I do, that still makes a big difference, and which I am eager to share with you here?
There is no right or wrong way to keep a food journal. I do want to say here, though, that there has been research that shows that keeping food journals can be triggering for people with eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. I want to say this right at the beginning because if you identify with this, then keeping a food journal may not be for you. It may bring about anxiety even thinking about doing it, and guilt and shame if you don’t stick to it. With regard to eating disorders, that would be beyond what I can offer you. This blog is not medical advice and you might want to seek out professional help.
Tips for keeping a food journal
With that being said, here are some tips for keeping a food journal. I am leaving out the part where you weigh and measure your food because with everything I have read, and with what I have learned from many other health coaches, doing that is not necessary if you approach food journaling the way I am going to suggest to you here. I did it myself for many months before bringing it to you here, because I wanted to see for myself if the journaling experience without the weighing and measuring of the food, really does make a difference in the comfort and success levels of following an eating style.
When is the best time to Journal?
There are five ways to time writing in your journal, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. The first three ways put a plan in place. The last two are journaling but not necessarily with planning.
- The first way is to write a food journal daily, the night before. The advantage of this is that you are probably not hungry, which sways a lot of what you want to eat, and it done so that you start your day in the morning without giving it a second thought. The disadvantage – at least for me – was that at night I am not hungry and I’m tired. Often in the morning I would look over my plan for the day and not want about half of what was on it. Some people swear by doing journaling this way, but it didn’t work for me.
- The second way is to plan as much as a week or more in advance, much like meal planning. This worked well for me when I was working full time, was running around with the kids, and had to do meal planning so that I only had to go to the grocery store once a week and do batch cooking on the weekend. Once I retired it seems as though I lost all my bandwidth for doing this, even though I tried several times to look ahead to the entire week. Doing your planning and food journaling for more than one day at a time might fit very well into your routine, or you might find that you can’t wrap your head around it.
- A third way is to plan out your food day and journal first thing in the morning. I found that this worked better for me because I was able to look at my day with a fresh perspective about what I was going to be doing and what I might feeling like having. I took a moment to survey the fridge to see leftovers and things I might have bought but forgot all about. It was an easy activity with my first coffee of the day. The disadvantage is that you might have a lot to do in the morning and find that this takes up valuable time in the real estate of your available time. It also never would have worked for me while I was working because if I didn’t have something in the house that I needed (fruits and vegetables that pack well, for instance) I couldn’t shop before work and often I was left hungry at lunch or didn’t eat wisely at night because I was too tired to cook, didn’t shop on the way home, and well, the heck with it.
When you journal the next two ways, it is easy to have those cookies when you say to yourself, “At least I am writing it down.” Of course, you can have some resolve and you don’t have to eat in reaction to anything, but it’s easier to eat in a reactionary way because at least you are recording it, than when you are sticking to something you have pre-planned.
- A fourth way to do this is to write down foods, meal by meal, before you eat, as you go along with your day. I liked doing this because it takes into account what I want in the moment, rather than having decided it the night before or the week before. It also doesn’t take the time you might not have in the mornings. The disadvantage of doing it this way, is that if you are trying to lose weight, it might not be as focused as a full day of planning, and when reviewing your journal, you might find that you do a lot of catch-as-catch-can eating, and that you haven’t been putting together the most well-rounded, nutrient rich meals because you grab what there is and don’t make the best choices. When you plan for the day, you have a better sense of needing to include various things like fruits, vegetables, quality protein, good fats, etc.
- A fifth way is to just eat and write it all down after you have finished your meal. However, make sure you don’t sit down at 4PM and try to remember what you had for breakfast. This rarely works unless you have the same one or two things every day, day in and day out.
The point of any of this timing is that at least you do it. Write down everything, and I mean everything. Did you grab some nuts that weren’t on your day-before plan? Put it down. The point of this journaling is to bring awareness to what you are eating in a day.
Awareness, Honesty, and Reality
The main point of journaling your food without the weighing and measuring is to bring awareness to what you are eating.
Let’s say you write as you eat. Every day you have a Snickers bar at 3 in the afternoon or every night you have ice cream and some cookies. Okay. Write it down. Maybe you sort of had amnesia with these foods and habits. When you write it down right after you eat it (or even before you eat it), you now have awareness. That awareness is the habit, the food, the quantity and the frequency. Maybe after a few weeks of keeping a food journal you stop yourself because now you have brought mindfulness to it and realize that it doesn’t help you with your health goals. Maybe you will still have it, but less frequently or in small quantities.
You must be honest. How often did I get on the scale at a Weight Watcher’s meeting and be totally baffled by the lack of weight loss, or even weight gain. And that was when I was weighing and measuring my food. I didn’t set out to be dishonest, but I didn’t write down a cookie or the spoon of macaroni and cheese snatched from my kid’s plate before I put it in the dishwasher. Maybe I made my food plan, made sure it fit the points, but then had a piece of candy or a handful of chips. I’m not saying one candy, or one cookie makes a difference, but it adds up. Sometimes it really was amnesia, and sometimes I was just fooling myself. Remember the quip that if you eat a broken cookie, it doesn’t count because the calories fell out of the broken end? Remember the joke about how if you finish something off your kid’s plate it doesn’t count because it’s their calories not yours? Writing down everything you eat and drink keeps you honest. It also makes amnesia almost impossible.
When you make your plans, especially those made the day, or days, before, be realistic. If you know that you always have that Snickers bar at 3PM or the ice cream and cookies at night, write it down. Not writing it down will not stop you from eating it. It will just make you guilty when you do eat them, and they are not on your plan. Believe me, making the plan realistic will not backfire. As a matter of fact, when it is all laid out in front of you, you are more likely to say to yourself (after days of eating whatever it is you would like to stop eating), “I don’t think I need this today,” or “I am going to take a smaller bowl of ice cream and only one cookie.” The more realistic you are with your planning, the better you will feel because there is no judgment and no guilt. You are just eating what you said you would eat.
You don’t have to make some huge commitment to a diet or an eating style. If you are following a specific diet or eating lifestyle, make a commitment to keep to your plan, while also acknowledging that there might be things that are off plan. If that is the case, you can work towards staying with the diet or eating lifestyle. Believe me, more damage is done by off-plan eating because of emotions such as boredom or anxiety, than if you just eat the one or two things that are on your plan and that you would eventually like to eliminate.
There are a few things to check if you are consistently having a hard time committing to your plan.
- Are you planning enough food? Sometimes when we start out a plan, especially when it is a new eating style, we don’t put enough food, either in quantity or variety. This is one of the advantages to not putting down quantities – just the food itself and using your hunger scale to determine when you have had enough. The other thing is variety. Maybe your body is not going to be satisfied with chicken and salad. Maybe it needs fruit. Maybe it needs butter or a cooked vegetable too. Just make sure you are eating enough and that you don’t skimp on the variety of food you eat.
- Are you not accounting for the foods you are not ready to give up yet? Let’s say you want to eat low carb and for most of the day you have planned out foods that fit the bill. But dinner for this day takes place at a birthday party. You know you will want dessert. You know from past experience when you have been on strict diets, that not having the dessert will come out sideways, resulting in eating junk when you get home until it is time for bed. Yes, eventually you would like to work through that, but for now, put the cake down on your plan, please.
- Does your plan not take care of traveling? Some people who travel a lot have a home-base plan (which I will talk about in another episode) and a travel plan. Does your plan not take care of office lunches? Look at the reality of the way your day is laid out, what is available to you, and what occasions might throw you for a loop. Look at how you are feeling. Do you know that it is going to be the kind of day where comfort food will be welcome? What is your comfort food? Doesn’t have to be a huge bowl of mashed potatoes. Maybe instead, plan soup or something else warm like a bowl of chili. Maybe only a bowl of mashed potatoes will do. Put them on your plan. Have them. Enjoy them. Move on.
- Plan for other “obstacles” like running the grandkids or kids around to their sports; a holiday dinner; a night out, etc.
Remember, the aftermath of hating yourself for going off your plan, is far worse than anything that could be on your plan.
Tips for Keeping a Food Journal - Part 2
Next week’s blog will talk about other things that you can add to your food journal such as moods or blood sugar tracking. You don’t have to add all these things I will suggest next week, but the fuller the picture is for you, the fuller is the road to success.
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