A lot of us think we eat pretty healthily and only cheat once in a while. I am one of these people – at the end of the day, I regularly blog and post onto social media about the things I do for my fitness and the healthy stuff I eat, trying to be a role model and so on, so I must be doing everything right, right? Errr, wrong. The truth is that as soon as I started tracking everything that I put into my mouth for a few weeks on a daily basis by using a food diary, I was forced to realise that there was lots of room for improving my eating habits and my relationship with food.
Why did I feel the need to start a food diary in the first place? My gym launched a 6 week transformation challenge for us members which amongst other things involved enrolling us into a nutritional coachning programme. I have found this to be so helpful that I decided to record some of my key learnings and share them so that my readers can benefit, too.
In what ways can keeping a food diary be useful?
Tracking food choices holds you more accountable
I don’t know about you, but if I know I have to write down and document everything I put into my mouth, I usually think twice before I reach for that chocolate bar or slice of cake.
Accountability has been proven to lead to better results. A 2008 study publised in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that keeping a food diary may double your weight loss efforts. This was based on a group of over 1,600 people. Those who tracked their food choices lost almost 10 more pounds following the same advice as the control group.
Tracking helps you notice trends in your eating
By documenting your choices, it makes it easier for you to detect any trends in your eating. Only after starting my food diary did I realise how much I snack and graze during the day. Well, if you think you only have a treat every now and then, look back over your food log and prove it! Like myself, you may start to realise that you make poor choices more often than you realise. Documenting it is the first step you can take before correcting it.
Tracking can help you figure out what food combinations are causing you issues
This is about getting into more in-depth analysis of your food choices. Beyond just documenting your food choices, you can take things a step further and you can start looking at different combinations at each meal.
Do you eat large amounts of carbs with little protein and veggies? This could be affecting your blood sugar.
What other activities are you doing when eating? Working, watching telly and similar distractions may be causing you to overeat and/or not chew your food properly, potentially leading to digestive issues and a bloated feel.
Are there any combinations of foods that do not make you feel great after eating? Or are there any foods that continuously give you issues? Again, by carefully documenting what you eat can help you see patters. For example, I can’t run well if I eat greasy eggs or a big leafy salad shortly before heading out, as these type of foods cause discomfort in my stomach during running, so I avoid these foods before training. On the other hand though, I run really well on porridge made with milk, even if there is very short window between eating and starting to run. Getting your breakfast right on race day morning can be a real game-changer!
Tracking helps you uncover the relationship between food and your emotions
Looking back at your previous food journal entries, you may start noticing trends. For example, do you eat at a similar time each day? Do you tend to have the same things for breakfast? Search out and try to find an anomaly, like a good detective. Look for something that is not typical for you to eat, either in food choice or quantity. Was there a trigger for that unusual behavior?
Were you stressed about something at work?
Did you just receive some bad news?
Were you feeling anxious about something?
Did you just have a fight with your other half?
There can be a major link between your emotions and food choices. This is something you should try to be aware of so that you can work out a coping strategy and train yourself to control.
This was a real biggie for me as it was (and often still is) sabotaging my sports performance. I have discovered that I am most likely to pig out when I am feeling really stressed. I have recently changed roles at work and I had a really rough start in my new role. I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work needing to be done and the pace at which I was expected to pick things up, not to mention the state of some of the things that were left for me to pick up the pieces of. My coping mechanism at the time was to devour all the sweet treats within my eyesight (my colleagues tend to bring in treats almost daily) and try and find relief from the stress through eating lots of chocolate. Chocolate and rich biscuits literally give me an endorphin rush, making me feel better temporarily. As you can imagine, I have put on some weight recently as a result!
Another thing that I realised I needed to tackle was my meal times. I tend to have an early breakfast as I can’t train on an empty stomach first thing in the morning. So naturally, I need to have an early lunch as well between 11.30am and midday, as I start to feel starved if there is a longer than 4 hour window between my main meals. In the past, I used to have dinner at home, which meant that there was a huge window of around 7 hours between my early lunch at work and my dinner at home around 7pm. I used to feel really hangry and struggling to focus at work during the late afternoon hours. After all, no wonder that the first thing I did when I finally got home was to raid the kitchen store cupboard and stuff my face with anything I could reach for, in order to calm my raging hunger, before actually starting to prepare a proper meal for myself. Unfortunately, it was not the fruit basket that I reached for!
Recognising these trends was the first step towards tackling these challenges. To tackle stress at work, I decided to bring healthy treats for myself such as energy balls as a better alternative to the biscuits and chocolates my colleagues keep bringing in. The energy balls are still quite calorific and decadent, however, they have at least higher nutritional value so I am not feeding myself rubbish. Secondly, I decided to bring a packed dinner to work (such as a tupperware salad) so that I could eat between 4pm – 4.30pm, and then have a light snack at home later (such as some fruit) if I needed to. This meant that I had to put aside my notions about post 6pm being the only ‘acceptable’ time to have dinner. This particular change has made an enormous difference to me – I don’t only cope better at work in the afternoon, but I have also cut down on my grazing habits.
When you find yourself trapped in an unhealthy emotional eating cycle, you need to ask yourself the question ‘what do I really want/need’? In my case, when I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed, all I want is to be comforted. When I am feeling peckish in the afternoon at work (not hungry), all I want is a to be rewarded for getting through the day that far.
Unfortunately, we have the tendency to turn to food for comfort, stress relief or even reward, and I am not ashamed to admit that I am no different – in case you thought that being a fitness & health blogger meant having a perfect diet 🙂 However, the most important thing I have learnt from this is that emotional eating never actually fixes our emotional problems (in fact, most of the time, we feel worse afterward). The bottom line is that emotional hunger is not satisfied by a full stomach.
By using a food journal, you can break this cycle and become more connected with your emotions and take better care of yourself. By requiring yourself to write down your choices, it can help you recognise whether you are actually experiencing emotional hunger or physical hunger. (I have written an article earlier about how you can rewire your brain for food freedom – in that blog post I talk a bit more about emotional and physical hunger. Here is an external article that I have also found to be very useful on this topic.).
How to start a food diary
If this has resonated with you and would like to give food journalling a try for a few weeks, I suggest that you start up an Excel spreadsheet or a note book, where you record your main meals, snacks between meals, and your total liquid intake as well, including timings.
- Be as specific as you can – for example, don’t just write down you had coffee with your breakfast, but make a note of whether you added any sugar, and what kind of milk you added, if any. Also remember to record how you were feeling during the day, and any significant events such as ‘key project deadline’ and so on which may have influenced your food choices.
- Be honest – record everything you have (yes, even one bite of that donut will have to go on the tracker, you cheeky monkey!). Remember that you are doing this for yourself, and you will only cheat yourself if you are dishonest.
- Be consistent – keep the journal for a few weeks, even on days you are on holiday, going out, to get a true picture of reality.
- Track on the go – it is best to record your food intake on the go, but no later than at the end of the day – I for one can easily forget what I ate the previous day!
Remember, that by using a food journal, you are trying to create a deeper connection with yourself. Your insight into how you are feeling is always better that any expert’s opinion – no one knows you more than yourself. Most importantly, a successful food journal should turn a negative experience into one of exploration and not a tool to beat yourself up!
In my next article, I am going to tell you about how I took things one step further, by tracking my macros, which led me to get into the best shape of my life and helped me achieve my best half marathon time this year, a few weeks ago.
Have you ever tried keeping a food diary – how did you find the experience?
Photo credits: www.itmlab.com; uhp.com.au