Should You Use a Food Journal?

Yellow paper food journal with black writing

I’ve never been particularly good at keeping a food journal. From time to time, if my healthy eating goes sideways for a stretch, I’ll pull out a notebook and get started on a daily record. I usually don’t get much further than day three, when I lose steam and tuck the notebook back on the shelf where I found it.

Others are more committed, such as my friend Tracy Benjamin, who’s been at it for years. A food blogger and artist, Tracy took her journal practice to the next level by designing a bright and cheery notebook to record in, which she now prints and sells on Etsy.

Writing in a food journal with a cup of coffeeWhy a Food Journal?

When I spoke with Tracy recently about her practice, she said it helps her stay accountable for food choices. She’s become more attuned to her hunger cues and learned what supports healthy eating and what doesn’t. Among other things, she’s figured out that a glass of wine or two is enough to mess with her best intentions. She also says keeping a food journal is fun. It’s a memory book of meals she’s enjoyed at restaurants or with friends. Plus, she puts a creative spin on the process, sometimes sketching or water coloring her food in lieu of writing things out.

Interior pages of a yellow food journal with black writing

Benefits of Keeping a Food Journal

Tracy’s not the only one to see the upside of journaling. Plenty of research links consistent use of a food record to better nutrition and overall weight loss. A Kaiser Permanente study of 1,700 adults found those who kept a food diary dropped twice as much weight as those who didn’t.

To learn more about food journaling, I reached out to a group of registered dietitians who use them as part of their practice. A few noted that the focus isn’t about calories or points, “good foods” or “bad foods”. It’s a holistic approach that can yield really useful information. It can help:

Assess Overall Diet — When logged over the course of several days or weeks, a food diary provides a birds-eye view of your intake. It can identify patterns, snacking habits, and how balanced your plate is at various meals. It can help you assess how your diet stacks up against the dietary guidelines. For example: Are you consistently eating plenty of daily fruits and vegetables? How’s your ratio of whole grains to white flour foods? Is a big sugar fix getting you through the afternoon?

Identify Food Intolerances — A food journal can link physical symptoms to food triggers. If you’re feeling bloated or getting migraines on a regular basis, for example, you can back up and track what foods show up in advance of those symptoms.

Link Eating to Emotions — Tracking not just how you feel physically, but also emotionally can be enormously enlightening. I tend to reach for old-school carb-heavy comfort food when I’m feeling blue, for example, foods that tend to bring my energy down further. Just being aware of your triggers can be a first step towards shifting them.

Support your Best Intentions — If you’re following a specific diet, a journal can help keep you on track. “I personally journaled when I followed an elimination diet for eight weeks,” says registered dietitian Kelly Blake. “ I found it very therapeutic and beneficial to look back at the end of the day and see what I had consumed…it motivated me to continue with the plan.”

Help you to Press Pause — Knowing you’re keeping a dietary record can be enough to help you stop and really consider your options. It may get you to rethink that second piece of cake after dinner or mindless handful of potato chips that you’re not really craving.

Tap into Hunger and Satiety — Your hunger cues are one of the best tools for eating what’s right for you. Keeping a food journal can teach you to eat more intuitively by making note of how hungry you are before eating and how full you are after.

Are there Food Diary Downsides?

All the benefits of food journaling aside, I do have one worry that stands out about the practice. In a culture that’s already hyper-focused on “clean eating” with rampant orthorexia, keeping a food record could cross the line from supportive and wholesome to obsessive and hurtful. If you have a history of disordered eating or being overly fixated on healthy eating, talk to your therapist, doctor, or dietitian before you start a food journal. And if you do start one only to find it overly consuming or generally not a positive experience, it’s time to rethink the practice.

What Should I Write in a Food Journal?

For those who want to give food journaling a go, a number of different factors are worth tracking. It’s really up to you as to what makes sense and what you can reasonably commit to. Here are some of the specifics you may want to consider:

*Type and amount of food/drinks (be specific)
*Water intake
*Time of day
*Whether food is home cooked or eaten out
*How you feel physically before and after eating
*How you feel emotionally before and after eating
*How quickly you eat
*How hungry before
*How full after

You might also find these sample pages from a Harvard Health food journal to be a useful guide on how to go about it. 

What’s The Best Food Journal For You?

The first step to starting a food journal is to figure out the best tool for you. Are you a pen and paper kind of person or is electronic the way to go?

Paper Tools

Anything goes here. You can create and print out your own DIY food journal, jot things down in your calendar, pull out a spiral-bound notebook, or pick up something from a stationary store that inspires you. You can also check out Tracy’s Food Journal, which she sells here (p.s. I’m not making a cent from these sales, I’m just a superfan of her food diary).

Online Tools

The options for online journals and apps are endless. It can be as simple as logging your intake in the Notes section of your smart phone or you can settle on an app that speaks to you. Below are a few of the tools I’m familiar with. You can also explore this review of 21 food journaling apps by heading here.

My Fitness Pal

Cara

Chronometer

Top Tips for Keeping a Food Journal

  1. Set an initial goal, such as logging your intake for 3 days, 1 week, or whatever you can realistically commit to.
  2. Find a food journal buddy who is willing to try it out with you and help keep you accountable.
  3. Play around with different tools for journaling to find what works best for you.
  4. Watch your thoughts to make sure food journaling has a positive impact and not something that fires up your inner critic.
  5. After you’ve journaled for a few days or a week, take the time to reflect on your eating. What patterns do you notice? What do you like about your diet and where is there room for improvement?

I’d love to hear your experience with a food journal, so please feel free to share in the comments below.

Photo credits: Tracy Benjamin/Shutterbean

Comments

07.09.2019 at 8:46 PM #

Nancy

Thank you for this thoughtful and researched post. I too have tried food journaling, but it has been challenging. I wonder when most people actually take the time to write in them (at end of day, immediately, etc. I think I’ll try again and use some of these tips!

07.09.2019 at 8:46 PM #

katiemorford

Thanks Nancy. I think it’s very individual as to what works best. I am giving it another go myself. Good luck!

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