Why A Food Journal Can Change Your Life

I want you to sit back for a second and think of something in life you know could be managed better and more productive.  I'll use money as an example but it could be your time, preparation, how you shop, doing chores.

Really, this could be so many things.

However, money speaks to us in ways other things don't and I find a strong correlation with nutrition when talking about measuring and managing. So many people struggle with making real nutrition changes because they "sort of" follow a plan, they feel like they do all the right things, but if you pressed them for fine details you'd find a lot of loose ends.

Now lets pretend it's money management.  Perhaps a theoretical person wants to save more and as they assess their income and spending, it seems like they do most of the right things.  Bills get paid on time, rent is never late, they don't do a lot of online shopping and they don't have debt on credit cards. In the day to day overview of their income and habits it doesn't appear that they are making any huge errors.  All major bases covered and all around a responsible person.

If we looked closer though we might see smaller pulls on the income that don't get noticed day to day but add up enough over time that they prevent any major progress in savings.  Maybe we have some of the following:

-No weekly plan to save "X" amount - whatever is left over at the end of the week after spending is potential savings

-Having online streaming services like Hulu or Netflix that they don't use

-Paying for a cheap, monthly, but unused gym membership that they haven't gotten around to canceling

-Spending more on groceries because they don't write out a shopping list - or eating out too often

-Spending way too much on coffee, multiple times per day when they have an unused Keurig at home

-Going to Target when they're bored and just buying "stuff"

We wouldn't demonize any of these things nor make the person feel guilty for doing them; we all have our exceptions that we like to splurge on because it improves our quality of life but having too many unchecked and overlooked spending habits can add up to really impair our ability to save.  The money is THERE, perhaps it just needs more oversight.

Journaling is Reality

The reason jounrnaling can change your life in terms of nutrition runs parallel to the above example.  It's easy to knock a few big things off the nutrition list but if there are too many loose ends in terms of calories coming in, those can add up enough to hold back progress.

Nutrition is personal, just like money is.  Humans tend to spin a personal narrative (myself included!) that helps them overlook choices that are antithetical to their goals as a way of keeping things the same. I've had plenty of instances where I am completely sure a I've only had 3 tablespoons of peanut butter out of a new jar and yet the jar is half empty by the end of the day.  And the first thought is almost never "wow, I really misjudged my portions".  It's usually something that shfts the blame off ME like "I wonder if this jar was even full when I opened it", "did my cat get up here and eat some?", "maybe someone broke into my house and ate all this peanut butter". 

The reality is if we do not check and manage our food intake when we are trying to make a big chance, then our choices that do not line up with that change often get softened, forgotten or justified.  The hard truth is those calories are still being eaten, whether we acknowledge them or not and our physiology will respond accordingly. It's not hard to ignore things that don't fit our narrative because simple excluding them from our self-reporting is much easier than facing them.

Journaling is reality, written down. If you are honest and write down everything you eat and drink then you are forced to face that reality. Most of us can start to address the things holding us back once we see them written down and accept the reality that, yes they are in fact happening.

I've had many clients swear up and down they eat the same meals every day and can't lose weight.  I usually would get an inkling that something was up when I asked for a three day food journal where they write down all their meals and drinks including the times they were ingested and instead of getting what I asked for, I'd get a two sentence response that said "I have a bar for breakfast, salad for lunch and a healthy dinner". By keeping me out of the loop the client is able to delay facing reality longer.  And by spinning their narrative, which is probably been told to many people, it helps solidify that the problem is in fact, not theirs.

If you repeat that narrative long enough, you'll actually believe it.

Facing Reality

With a client above, I'd start having them truly journal.  Often it starts with them writing down "salad with chicken" and then as I press for details it becomes "southwest salad with chicken" then "southwest salad with beans, cheese, creamy dressing and fried tortillas with chicken" and then as I press for more details we find out it's only two ounces of chicken.  As the person becomes more and more comfortable with being open and honest the details start to reveal themselves.  For us, and the client, a salad with chicken probably sounds like a bunch of greens and veggies with grilled chicken breast, like a house salad.  But the details reveal hundreds of more calories from all the other ingredients and the fact that it's nowhere near enough protein from chicken.

Chance is uncomfortable and it being transparent reveals things about us we don't often want to face. Along with the salad example, if you get a client who is very guarded to journal for say, two weeks, you might even notice that every day they have half a cookie at work and they snack on chips while dinner is cooking.  Again, details are left out because they don't seem consequential in the moment but as you pull back the patternis apparent.  All those little snacks, nibbles, bites, sips or whatever add up and can truly prevent change.

Perhaps your reality is facing portions, food selection, impulse eating or snacking at night.  Personally I find I am less likely to acknowledge I have eaten something if it is late at night.  That grey area at the end of the day and right before bed is like a no-man's land for me in terms of accounting for food.  It's like my kitchen turns into Las Vegas from 10PM on and if it happens there, it stays there.  So for me, writing down a snack or late meal ahead of time pulls it into reality and I make better choices.

It's Simple, Actually

Start by just writing down everything you eat and drink.  I know people love to use calorie tracking apps but if you are new to this, you probably won't track correctly on your phone anyway - it's surprising how few people do.

Let me repeat that, write down EVERYTHING you eat.  The bite of that cookie someone offers you at work, the fancy Starbucks drink, the cheese and oil on your salad, the handful of granola eaten while dinner is cooking.  Write it all down.  Don't approach this as a way of making yourself feel guilty, just log it and after a week, look over the results. Patterns become immediately clear and extra calories you didn't think you were eating stare you right in the face.

I work in a kitchen, I know how easy it is to taste things or snack on food when it's all around you and simple not acknowledge it was eaten. Facing it means change and change requires effort.  The easy way is to keep doing what you're doing and continue the convenient narrative.

However if you want real change the reality needs to be faced.  Often it's not that someone else needs to intervene as much as it is that you need to accept the choices you make.  Simply writing things down and owning up to them is a huge step, a critical step and I believe, a life changing step.  If you have tried many times to lose weight or make a significant lifestyle change and struggle with these changes long-term then journaling can help solve that.

Accountability is huge and most of us can't pay someone else to hold us accountable, that needs to come within. Yo-yo dieters and those who start nutrition plans but never make any progress need that the most. You might need to journal for a year, not exaggeration.  If you truly struggle with making changes then you probably need that time to see the issues and slowly start addressing them and creating new habits, personality traits and wins along the way.  Two weeks won't do jack for you.  A month won't do it either, maybe you simply dig in for a year and spend that time being accountable and facing the decisins you make.

The reason why I like people to write things down rather than log in an app is because a notebook/journal is more tangible, it's easier to flip through, you can make notes and you can look at patterns over time in an efficient manner. I find the act of writing brings another level of reality to this that an app does not.

You might notice I didn't tell you what to do here. I didn't make dietary suggestions or lifestyle modifications.  Simply writing down everything you eat and drink will do that for you.  Almost every adult knows which foods are holding them back, which patterns and habits don't line up with their goals and which do.  That's not the issue. The issue is facing those things so you can make long-term changes and becoing comfortable with owning all of your choices.

Self-reflection is uncomfortable but powerful.  I encourage you, if real change is what you want and need, to just start writing things down.  Then do it everyday.  And keep doing it. Review your day, review your week and address the things you know are issues. First, accept them, no judgement. Then consider ways in which you could make better choices.

If you are skeptical I encourage you to start with just one week, recording every detail of your food intake.  You'l see what I mean at the end of the week.