A Dietitian’s Thoughts on Food Journaling

A big problem with Americans’ eating behaviors is that we just aren’t very aware. We don’t notice how much we eat, we don’t notice when we’re full, and we probably don’t even remember what we ate yesterday. We’re too busy and too distracted.

Mindful eating is great, but what happens when we can’t even remember to be mindful? It’s not an easy habit to build.

I was at a weight management conference recently and food journaling was cited by the majority of the speakers as the single most effective way to create behavior change in eating habits.

Why is food journaling useful? It creates both awareness and accountability. It’s easy to dismiss a food-related choice when it’s lost amongst the thousands of other decisions we make on a daily basis. It’s there and gone as quickly as it takes to eat a cupcake. But if you have to write it down? That might be the pause that helps you identify a mindful vs. mindless food choice. In fact, researchers can’t even trust food journals from participants in nutrition research. Why? The very act of having people journal makes them eat smaller portions (and make different choices), as long as they’re honest. Why not use that to your advantage?

Track your hunger and fullness as well. Assign a numbered scale to your feelings of hunger and fullness. Let’s say 0 is starving, 5 is neutral, and 10 is stuffed. If you’re going to the cupboard but realize you’re above a 5, perhaps a different activity would better occupy your attention. You’re not hungry – you’re bored, stressed, or upset. Food shouldn’t be a treatment for those conditions. You might be surprised how often this happens.

Note stressful events in your day. Have a stressful 2 PM meeting every Tuesday? That might mean you also have a weekly 3 PM trip to the vending machine. Taking note of stressful events can help you connect the challenging parts of your weekly routine with your eating behaviors.

Is the pen mightier than the phone? You can track your food intake however you want. Good, old-fashioned pen and paper works fine. There are lots of phone apps that can do the trick as well. It really doesn’t matter. The best way to track is the method you will be consistent with.

There are no rules to follow. Why do most diets fail? They’re unsustainable and they’re not individualized. The great thing about food journaling is that there are no rules – maybe some guidelines (don’t eat when you’re not hungry), but simply writing down what you eat doesn’t mean you have to cut out carbs, fats, or any individual foods. Hungry for pizza? Eat the pizza! Journaling might just help with keeping you aware of how much pizza you eat and for what reasons you choose it.

You could count calories or macros…or not count at all. Food journaling or tracking doesn’t mean you have to be overly detailed. The simple act of documenting it is what’s most effective. Besides, we aren’t very good at counting calories anyways, nor do we have a reliable way for tracking calories burned throughout the day. Most tracking methods for these are educated guesses at best.

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