I’ve always been a journal keeper. My very first journal was a plain blue number that I illustrated myself by drawing… a gigantic toilet bowl on the cover with the words MY LIFE swirling metaphorically down the hole. I was 10. Two things you should know about Young Charlotte: a) I was every bit as dramatic then as I am now but without the perspective of three decades to temper me and b) I was an excellent artist. To this day I’m impressed with that toilet. It was 3-D and everything. Another thing you should know about me: I always liked things to be ranked. Me, especially. In that first journal I ranked every day on the A-F scale. “A” being days that Tim (*sigh*) talked to me. “B” being days that Tim (*sigh*) looked in my general direction. And “F” being every other day. Seeing as Tim pretty much thought I was pond scum, there were a lot of F days. And creepy drawings of Tim. (I’m sorry Tim! Facebook me! Kidding!)
Then came middle school and I got introduced to a whole other kind of journalling. In 6th grade (6th!) my health teacher had us all keep a food journal for two weeks as part of our section on healthy eating. I still have that journal. I still cry looking at that journal. The first week showed a fairly normal pre-teen diet. But when I brought it in for a check-in my tiny size-0-even-in-90′s-sizes teacher frowned and commented, “You ate all that?!” And that was all it took*. The following week in my journal saw a drop off so steep the Grand Canyon is envious — a nosedive that my teacher commended me for with a pat on the back and an admonition to keep my grams of fat under 5 per day, like she did. (GAH THE 90′S!)
After that, my little blue toilet-journal stopped being about existential angst, boys and homework and soon turned into entries of everything I ate. But that wasn’t enough. So I started tallying fat grams and sit-ups and push-ups. That held for a few years but then I got clued in that it wasn’t just fat grams I should be worrying about – seriously, there were several years in there where I ate less than 1 gram of fat per day (it was the SweeTarts and air-popped popcorn diet) – and I added calories to the list. As the years went on I added tracking of animal products (I was a vegetarian or vegan). And then when I hit college and learned Microsoft Excel, I was in food journal heaven.
My food journals became so elaborate that I had graphs tracking macronutrients and micronutrients, meal times, portion sizes, ounces, calories, workouts, diet plans, carb cycles, calories cycles, supplements… if it could be tracked, I tracked it. By the time 20/20 found me I had literally thousands of sheets detailing everything I’d eaten, every exercise I’d done and every article I’d read about nutrition/fitness. (Now they have apps for all that. You’re welcome.) But do you know what I didn’t have in there? How I felt about any of it.
I’d completely given up writing about my dreams, my family, my achievements, my blessings and anything else that would matter 10 years down the road. Who had time to count blessings when I had to add a 27th column to break down the soluble vs. insoluble fiber in my diet? All of my life became laser focused on one thing: losing weight.
It was insane. Literally. I had lost my nut.
One of the first things I did when I started treatment for my OCD/eating disorder was give up that journal. It was absolutely terrifying at first – like a child losing their security blanket. But it wasn’t long before I was overjoyed by the freedom of living without it. I had no idea life could be this, well, simple! It was a couple more years before I found Intuitive Eating and put some more pieces of the puzzle together but no matter what, after that point, I did not go back to food journalling.
Before anyone freaks and thinks I’m backsliding (of which I do plenty but today is not that day), this is an entirely different kind of food journal. A few weeks ago when I panicked about gaining 15 pounds in 2 months, one of the things I realized was how mindless my eating has become. Since then I’ve been doing a lot of reading up about the study of “mindfulness.” Apparently it has huge applications for depression, anxiety, and eating issues – all of which you know I struggle with. It sounds hokey when you first read about it – exercises include thinking about thinking (whoa, like meta, dude!) – but hundreds of research studies support it and when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Especially when it comes to food. We live in a society that encourages us to completely lose contact with our food while we’re eating it. It’s not uncommon for people to not even realize they’ve ingested something until they see the pile of wrappers in front of them, despite having obviously chewed and swallowed it all.
But tuning in to my food and to my eating is hard. Really hard. I’ve found myself being really resistant to it – defiantly reading a magazine or working on the computer so I don’t have to pay attention to my food. And then I have a day like today where every time I ate, I ate way past fullness. I ended every meal feeling bloated and uncomfortable and sad. Yet I still couldn’t make myself focus. So I am bringing out the big (mindful) guns: a food journal. Except this time instead of writing down all my food, I’m writing about how I feel about my food. At the end of each day I jot down how I feel overall, how I felt before, during and after eating, any physiological issues (illness, period, extra hard workout etc), any cravings, and any upsetting thoughts - all without judgement.
This isn’t an exercise in self-recrimination. Honestly I’m not exactly sure what this exercise is, exactly. I’m hoping that it will help me see some patterns. I’m guessing that a lot of this has to do with my girly hormone cycle – it’s gotten a lot more intense since getting the Mirena IUD out (which I’m going to say for now is a good thing as I think it means my actual hormones are kicking in now) – but one of the joys of hormones is that they never feel like “just hormones”. It feels really real in the moment. I’m also guessing I’ll find some more connections between my emotions and how I eat that particular day.
In the past when someone has asked me if I am an “emotional eater” my response has always been “Duh, yes! Isn’t everyone?!” I know there are some people out there who see food purely as fuel and nothing more but for the majority of us, food is intimately connected with our emotions. This isn’t a bad thing (survival 101?) but understanding the interaction would be very helpful. So that’s why I’m doing this. And, one of the great things about keeping a mindful journal is that I still get to write other stuff not just about food. (Because that’s what I need in my life is… more writing?) ANYHOW. I think this is going to be quite illuminating.
What’s your opinion on food journals? Incidentally, I’m not saying they’re bad for everyone – I know lots of people for whom they’ve been wonderful tools – just that they were bad for me. Do you keep any kind of journal? Have you ever practiced mindfulness in any aspect? Are you an emotional eater? Got any tips for me? I’d love any advice you can give me!
*Not that I blame my teacher for my eating disorder. She wasn’t particularly kind or sensitive but, as they say, genetics loads the gun and my genetics were a fully automatic AK-57. All she did was put my finger on the trigger. [Update: Apparently the gun is an AK-47? I think I was confusing it with Heinz 57 sauce. Guns + steak sauce = Texas’ new state motto? Thanks to the two of you who loved me enough to e-mail me and correct me. No thanks to the rest of you who just snickered. Or craved steak.)