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You’ve seen the benefit of paying attention to your actions so that you become conscious of the choices you make. Now, you want to take that concept a step further and really dig into what and how much you eat so you can make even better choices.
It’s a big commitment but you feel you’re ready: you’ve decided to keep a food journal.
But before we get to the nut and bolts of keeping a food journal, let’s figure out if it’s even a good idea. Why would it be a positive exercise to keep a food journal and why might it not?
The Pros and Cons of Keeping a Food Journal
On the plus side, as the saying goes, “what gets measured gets managed.” When you pay attention to something and record the details, then that activity takes on a whole new look and feel. The simple act of writing down your actions brings everything into sharp and undeniable focus.
These are just a few of the common responses anybody who’s kept a journal has experienced:
- “I ate that!? I don’t remember any of it.”
- “That’s all I had today? That wouldn’t feed a toddler!”
- “I’d swear I eat more veggies than that”
Keeping a food journal can be especially good for those of us who tend to graze through the day, eating out of the fridge and whenever we’re bored. Stopping to write down “6 Mary’s Gone Crackers and half a pound of cream cheese” might make you think twice (or, at least, I hope so).
If all that rings true and you can make a positive change for yourself through keeping a food journal, then good for you. But what if the old saying is wrong? What if a journal is a chore with no result? Nothing says you have to change just because you’ve kept a “stupid food journal.” And if you haven’t defined a purpose for your journaling it might be a bad idea.
Being aware of the variety (or the lack thereof) in your diet is another plus to keeping a food journal. Most of us are creatures of habit and some of us will even eat the same three meals every day if we’re not careful. Variety is good for you in (almost) everything. Nutrients and their relationships to your systems and to each other are still largely a mystery. The only way to know that we’re getting what we need from our diet is to diversify. A journal can show you if you’re accomplishing this.
On the negative side, disordered eating tendencies can be encouraged by an over-analysis of food intake. Too much attention to the minutiae can have terrible side effects. Those of us who have these tendencies or a history in this area must be aware and cautious. If you struggle in this area, make sure you tell any nutrition or food expert you work with.
Should You Keep a Food Journal?
If keeping a journal, constantly stopping to write down every bite, annoys you. Don’t. Do. It.
Nothing will ruin an otherwise healthy relationship with food quicker than putting it under unnatural scrutiny. There has to be a reason strong enough to overcome this emotion. If you can’t find it, if none of the above reasons feel good enough, then it’s a bad idea for you to keep a journal.
(Pro tip: This doesn’t have to be permanent. You may come back to the whole journal thing later.)
If, instead, you look at all of the potential benefits of keeping a food journal and think, “All right, I’m in. It’s food journaling for me. I’m emotionally stable and I’ve laid out the whys of doing this,” then it’s time to talk about the “how.” Because if all you put in your pages is a list of food and your serving sizes, you’re not going to get the full benefit of your efforts.
How to Keep a Useful Food Journal
Journaling has been an amazing tool for everybody from Marcus Aurelius to da Vinci to Marie Curie, Einstein, Twain, and so many more. Let food be just the start.
So, what do you include in a food journal besides the what and how much? Consider including the following to get the most out of your journal:
- When did you eat?
- How were you feeling at the time? Happy, stressed, rested, rushed?
- What happened before, during and after your meal?
- Was it a meal? A snack? A gross self-indulgence?
- How long did you spend eating?
- Where did you eat? Did you eat while sitting, standing, walking, or (heaven forbid) driving?
With this kind of information, you’ll be able to dig into your nutrition choices and better understand why you made them. Understanding is the first step to taking full control. With this broader context to your eating, you’ll be more able to identify your triggers for making less wise choices and be able devise a strategy to avoid them or redirect your behavior when you encounter them.
For instance, through your food journal you realize you always take a break at 3:00pm and walk past Jennifer’s desk. Jennifer always has a bowl full of Reese’s Minis and you never take just one. And, of course, you have to walk past Jennifer again to get back to your desk.
Now that you see that pattern in your food journal, how can you break it? Walk a different direction to take your break. Have an apple or some nuts in your desk and grab them before you get up to take your break. What else? By thinking ahead through the solutions, and thanks to the info in your journal, you’ve taken control of your eating.
You Make the Rules with Your Food Journal
Keeping a journal isn’t as hard as it might sound. A spiral-bound notebook or a note-taking app on your smartphone will do. Some apps made for food tracking have a “notes” section for the kind of food journaling I’m advocating, also.
Start easy. Jot down a few thoughts: time, place, what you had. Ramp this up as you get in the habit. Some things you’ll want to get down right away, others can or should wait until later, especially if you (shudder) ate while driving.
Your journal can give you clarity, let you argue with yourself, record achievements and pats on the back, and let your inner child rant. It’s a dream catcher and vision illuminator, so use it to incubate ideas, try new words, and dream audacious dreams. It’s a record of failures — the best-ever learning tool — as well as triumphs, no matter how small.
Best of all it’s a judgment-free zone to examine your life. You can step back and look at yourself, warts and all. And nobody has to see it but you (if that’s what you prefer). If you’re working with a coach, you might want to share parts of your journal, but nobody has to see all of it. You and your coach can decide what’s meaningful for your combined goals, while you get to keep the rest to yourself.
Is a Food Journal Right for You?
I believe in journaling in general, but the food part doesn’t have to be forever. If your goal is to examine your eating patterns, then maybe you only need a few weeks to see what’s going on. If you need more, I’d suggest working with a coach to guide you. And, of course, repeating the process occasionally is always an option — as with anything else in nutrition and exercise (and life) revisiting the basics can be a great refresher and/or eye-opener.
If you go into this practice with a solid and positive reason, a simple plan you can stick to, and a goal to be just a little bit better at the process each day, then I think you’ll find some big benefits to a food journal.