Dear Diary – The Benefits of Keeping a Food Journal
*first published on www.crossfitadelaide.com April 2015*
As soon as you mention to someone about keeping a food diary or talking logging intake – one of the first reactions people have is they associate tracking food with being on a “diet” or they associate it with “restrictive” eating, generally speaking its a negative association – people don’t think “Food Diary – sweet I can eat whatever I like”. For anyone looking to improve their body composition and athletic performance through giving their diet the once over – keeping an accurate food diary (and using the information wisely) has more benefits than a cookie cutter solution meal / eating plan downloaded from the internet (and it doesn’t cost a fortune either just some time and effort). I know its shocking but the skinny girl with 200K followers on Instagram with a $49 Ebook about diet may not be the best resource for understanding what’s going on with you and your eating habits.
Without fail whenever someone asks me about improving their eating the first thing I ask them to do is keep a food diary and there are two reasons for this – one the benefits of the actual food diary (which we’ll cover in detail below) but the second one is effort, it takes a bit of effort to record what you eat (not much but Ill admit it is more effort than not logging your food) – now if someone isn’t prepared to take 5min each day for around a week to record – not change, just write down, what they are eating then I know they definitely aren’t willing to put in the effort to make any seriously sustained change to their eating habits. If someone wants to (excuse the pun) be spoon fed everything when it comes to fixing their eating – they don’t have the intrinsic desire to make change (don’t ask me for a 30 day meal plan, I won’t give you one, but I will help you improve how you eat for the rest of your life)
How can just writing down what you eat make such a big difference? Here’s 3 major things we learn when we keep a food journal
Awareness – eating is often a completely mindless act, try and think back to what you consumed yesterday (EVERYTHING) most people would remember their major meals of the day but it is the snacks, grazing and convenience foods that are often forgotten and this is where the excess calories can add up. Most people walk around telling themselves that they eat “okay” most of the time, its only once its starts getting laid out in black and white that they reason what they thought was okay is actually pretty poor. Once we are aware of what are eating we can start making conscious and hopefully better decisions
Emotions – whether we want to believe it or not, many of our decisions about eating are heavily emotionally driven (“I want a pie” is not an emotion btw). It goes back to the point about awareness but if we start linking how we are feeling to how we are eating we can start making positive change. Often when it comes to emotion driven eating it can be a bit of a chicken and egg scenario that people get the wrong way round – someone will feel tired and grumpy mid afternoon and their response to fix the emotion is to eat a packet of tim tams, through keeping a food journal making notes about how we are feeling at certain times we can back track and understand why we got tired and grumpy in the first place, make more intelligent food choices earlier in the day meaning that you no longer get tired and grumpy mid afternoon. Its a Preventative rather than Reactive approach to eating (the cost of health care would be a lot lower if more pharmaceutical companies thought preventative rather than reactive in relation to modern medicine but this is a topic for another article..)
Patterns/Behaviours – we are all creatures of habit, this can be a positive or negative thing depending on whether you use it to your advantage. A good habit would be to get up and go to the gym (CrossFit Adelaide in particular) before going to work every day, a bad habit would be having a 6 pack of west coast coolers every morning at 10am. A habit by definition is a behaviour that is almost happening automatically (without conscious thought), we can control our habits if we are aware of them and how to change behaviours – I’ve put a couple of videos on the website before about the Power of Habit, if we are recording our food it can make us aware of habits we may not have realised we have – like drinking a 6 pack of coolers at 10am, we can then set about replacing that habit with a better one, but to change a habit you first need to be aware of it and understand what is triggering it
An important thing to understand about keeping a food diary and one of the things that will help dispel some of the negative connotations around it is that keeping a food diary is a different to counting calories. You can count calories as part of the food logging process (there is a time and a place for this) for the what Im talking about in this article though I am considering them to be two separate things. Counting calories can cause (emphasis is on the can) some negative thought processes – counting calories is a very clinical approach and people will associate it with a very cut and dry – calories in calories out equals change in body mass approach, when it doesn’t quite work out as people plan it can be extremely frustrating and disheartening for people. Its important to remember that caloric information grabbed from the internet is only going to be semi accurate at best – not all bananas have the same number of calories, also your energy requirements are going to change on a day to day basis and calculating the exact energy demands of a CrossFit session taking into account increase BMR etc is going to be a loose calculation as best. As I said there is a time and a place for calorie counting and it can be incredibly effective for the right purpose but for most people they are going to get far better results (with less stress) but creating more mindfulness about what they are actually eating rather than being scared to eat 4 almonds as it will throw their daily calories out the window,
So we know keeping a food diary is a good thing with a stack of benefits, so what makes for an effective food diary? With a food diary the phrase something is better than nothing is definitely true but it is also true- the more something the better
The number one quality of a good food diary is accuracy which means – (in kind of list of importance but they all have their place)
Ingredients – “bowl of pasta” tells me very little, what sort of pasta? what vegetables? what meat? did you make it yourself? did you buy it from a restaurant? All of these factors affect how good or bad that meal potentially is
Quantities – “broccoli” is different to “1 piece of broccoli” is different to “2kg of broccoli”. the more information the better, it will also help increase your awareness. You may not list every ingredient in every meal (no one cares about a pinch of black pepper) but lay out the guts of it
Speed – not always a requirement for a decent food journal but it is something that is worth noting, mainly if you are a particularly fast eater, always find that you’re the first one finished at dinner? (and yell “TIME” after) then it might be something worth looking at and habit worth changing, fast eating can equal overeating (and a whole lot of other potentially negative effects). Doesn’t have to be detailed timing notes on every meal but putting down a brief note if you happen to notice you completely dominated your dining companions in the eating stakes is important and potentially valuable information.
Timing – when are you eating? simply putting the time of day next to each meal is incredibly useful for starting to identify patterns and help create positive habits, doesn’t take long to do and doesn’t have to be accurate to the sec, but pop it down for every time you eat.
Emotions – this is a funny one and probably the one that people struggle most to do but again it can help identify behaviours and understand the “why” of eating. Recording emotion can be a simple as just making a note if you notice you are feeling either particular happy, particularly grumpy etc or even easier when you think of it pop a smiley face on the page, that can be enough to at least see if there is a pattern forming of particular feelings
Everything is actually in there – this sums up accuracy, seriously WRITE IT DOWN, the whole point is if you eat something not so good – write it down so can deal with it, skipping over the details doesn’t help you and it definitely doesn’t help whoever is reading your food diary to help you. As the old phrase goes – you’re only cheating yourself.
To summarise the goodness that is food diaries, from personal experience ive seen people get results just from the recording process, by having to be accountable for whats going in their mouth they have made better choices and got immediate results – for some people this can be enough of a change to get the results they are after. For others the initial food diary is the initial step in a longer process to creating a lifetime of better habits, keeping an accurate food diary is going to form the initial part of the Nutrition Challenge we about to commence at CFA and the primary objective of the challenge apart from short / medium term results is to generate long term and permanent positive change.