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The First Step to Eating Better {Why You Should Keep a Food Journal}

If you’ve ever worked with a dietitian, nutritionist, or sometimes a naturopath or personal trainer, one of the first things that they will ask for is a food journal. In some cases, keeping a food journal is part of the treatment plan.

Is keeping a food journal necessary for healthy eating? The short answer is, no.

So, what’s the point?

Why Keeping a Food Journal is the First Step to Eating Better Click To Tweet

I Get It – Keeping a Food Journal Sucks.

One of my first jobs as a dietitian was working at a gym, and my manager at the time told me that she would review her clients’ food records with a red pen, and circle all the “bad choices” that her clients had made, as if they hadn’t beaten themselves up enough already for having a couple glasses of wine or enjoying a piece of cheesecake after supper.

Experiences like this definitely turn people off of keeping a journal, and it doesn’t help that they are a time-suck – instead of sitting down and just enjoying your meal, now you have to worry about figuring out every little ingredient in the dish or how big the portion size is. Plus, if you don’t finish everything on your plate, you have to go back and edit your journal again! At this rate, it’s a wonder that anybody would want to keep a food journal.

How Keeping a Food Journal Can Help You Eat Better

While there are some who find keeping a food journal makes their eating habits worse, for many, a food journal can be a helpful ally when it comes to increasing awareness.

Anyone who is trying to eat better is really trying to solve a problem. And the first step to problem solving is to be aware of, and identify it.

Even if you feel like you know what the problem is—let’s take night time cravings as an example—food journalling can help you dive deep and figure out why. Are you eating at night because you’re not eating enough during the day? Because supper is at 5 but you go to bed at 11? Or is it because everyone else is in bed and that’s your only chance to unwind?

Once you’ve figured out the problem, you can continue to use your food journal to monitor your progress as you work toward solving your problem. Imagine you’re a scientist working on an experiment, and your food journal is your observation log. What happens when you decide to have toast with peanut butter for breakfast instead of just coffee? What was different about those days where you didn’t snack in front of the TV?

Of course, having the Hawthorne Effect kick in doesn’t hurt either.

Setting Up for Food Journal Success

Like healthy eating itself, a food journal is most effective when it’s kept as a consistent habit. While writing down what you eat for a day or two can give a snapshot of your eating habits, it takes many snapshots to really be able to pick out patterns and see change.

It’s definitely a daunting endeavour, so here are some of my tips for getting started and staying consistent.

Start with What Matters

If I had a nickel for every time someone freaked out because they just “can’t get” MyFitnessPal, I could probably make a living without giving any nutrition advice. Here’s the thing: Most people don’t need to be tracking every last calorie that they’re eating in order to identify/solve their nutrition problem. Heck, most people don’t even need to be tracking every single thing that they’re eating!

Going back to the night time cravings example, if it turns out that the real issue is that you don’t eat often enough during the day, “keeping a food journal” might be as simple as putting a checkmark on a calendar every time you eat, or maybe just writing the time down of your meals and snacks.

Yes, having a detailed journal means that you have more data to work with, but all of that information (plus the time and effort it takes to get it) can distract from what you actually need to move forward. It’s much better to start simple, and track what’s relevant to your current goals, then gradually add more layers of information as you need it.

Making your tracking relevant to your goals makes you more likely to do it. Click To Tweet

It’s All About You

Since keeping a food journal is often assigned as “homework” in health care or fitness settings, it’s often viewed as something you’re doing for someone else. Who likes being told what to do? No one.

The best way to stay motivated is to make it yours. Track what you want to track (see above) in the format that you want to track.

Some might like the feeling of putting pen to paper, while others can’t be bothered to lug a notebook and pen around. Some might love how everything is on MyFitnessPal (and you can scan barcodes in! – Real client testimony), while others just hate having to look up every single item every time they eat and feel overwhelmed when they have to sort through 18 entries for “spinach” (Also real client testimony). Some might log everything on an Excel spreadsheet (hello, accountants!), others create and bind their own custom journal (hello, teachers and scrapbookers!), while others still just take pictures on their phone (hello, bloggers!)

How you share (or not share) your journal might be another motivator. Knowing that some of my fellow dietitians followed me on YouFood kept me going for a good nine months, and to be honest I stopped tracking when I noticed that others weren’t anymore. You might feel like you’re more honest when you keep your journal to yourself. Experiment! It’s your journal.

Focus on Observation, Not Evaluation

It’s never any fun to “face the music” and write down those times where you had popcorn and wine for dinner, but going back to the observation log analogy, scientists keep all of their data, even if it doesn’t look quite like what you want it to. In fact, this is where discoveries happen! Science can’t move forward if it’s always ho-hum, been there/done that. Neither can your eating habits.

Scientists wait until they have all their data before they start running analyses and drawing conclusions. Spare yourself the guilt and focus on observation, not evaluation. Just record those donuts in the breakroom or that extra helping at dinner as a data point and move on.
Food journals aren't about blaming & shaming, they're about increasing awareness. Click To Tweet

Use It or Lose It

One of the reasons why people stop keeping a food journal is because they don’t see the point. Gathering the information is one thing, but it does need to serve a purpose. Set aside some time each week to review your food journal, as it relates to your goals.

Going back to the night time cravings example, perhaps you can see if some of the strategies that you have implemented, like challenging yourself to grab a glass of water before allowing yourself a snack, or going out for a walk at your regular “witching hour” helped you move toward your goal.

If you struggle to see any patterns, that’s OK! That’s where a trusted friend, or a professional (like me!), can be an extra set of eyes. Just remember that at the end of the day, the journal is for you. It’s not meant to be used to judge if you’ve been “good” or “bad”, or as extra ammunition for you to beat yourself up with. It’s just a tool that can help increase your awareness around your eating habits, and help you problem solve if needed.

Have you kept a food journal before? What was your experience with it? What are some of your tips for being consistent with keeping a journal?

2 Comments

  • Teresa P Richardson on Sep 15, 2016 Reply

    I have kept a food diary 2-3 times. Twice by phone app, I’m a techy of sorts, but hated it. For the reasons in your article. I’ve never seen a reason for it, never put in when I ate candy and so didn’t continue. The good thing about the phone app was how surprised I was at the calories in fast food. Eye opener there. Guess I’m ready to try again, maybe in a book so I can see any patterns. There’s a good reason to write, to solve a problem. When , what and why I eat.

    • Vincci Tsui on Sep 15, 2016 Reply

      Hi Teresa,

      Thanks for your comment! I’m so glad to hear that you found my blog post helpful. Best of luck as you give keeping a food journal another shot – I would love to hear about what you end up discovering about yourself through this process!

      Vincci

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