Let me start out by saying: I’m not a big fan of food journals, most of the time, anyway.
What? Just about every weight loss plan, diet book, and personal trainer worth their tape measure recommends that you write down what you eat. I even request it of my own clients, for a week or two. It’s more for my benefit than theirs: it gives me a glimpse of their daily eating habits.
If you’re really an unconscious eater and tend to nibble all day long without noticing what you’re putting in your mouth, keeping a log of everything you eat for a short time can be very enlightening. A food diary is useful for people who have never paid much attention to their diets, whose weight gain just crept up on them and they can’t figure out why.
The majority of you reading this, however, do pay attention to your diets. Since you're interested in nutrition and staying healthy, you're already aware of everything you're putting in your mouth -- in fact, you probably think about it a lot. Keeping a food diary can easily become part of an overall compulsive attitude about food, in which sticking to your prescribed plan, weighing and measuring your meals, and keeping track of calories or fat grams or carbs starts to take precedence over how your body feels at any given moment and what it really needs.
Everything about this process is artificial, and as soon as you quit keeping the journal (and are you really going to keep this up forever?) your eating plan is likely to go out the window, too. Or vice versa.
Now you have two things to feel bad about instead of one! You fell off your diet, and you didn’t finish your homework.
If you want to keep a food journal, here’s what I suggest. This is for you if you’re more interested in figuring out what you really need to eat, rather than sticking to a rigid diet plan for the duration of the project only to quit later. I won't lie to you: this method takes more work than just writing down “4 oz. chicken breast, 1/2 cup steamed broccoli, 1 whole wheat roll, 1 tsp. butter,” but you don’t have to keep it up forever. Try it for one week.
There are no charts or grids in this method. All you need is a notebook (if you’re old-fashioned) or a blank computer screen.
Each time you eat something, write down: 1) the time of day 2) how you felt before you ate 3) what you ate 4) how you felt after you ate.
When I say “how you felt,” I mean both physically and emotionally. Write about this topic for as long as you like, as much as you have time for. Before you ate, did you feel irritable, bored, starving, cold, worried about something? Afterward, did you feel guilty, calm, reinvigorated, overstuffed, sleepy?
It’s very important that you not change your normal eating habits or do anything differently during this week. Pretend you’re a scientist observing someone in the lab and taking notes. No one will see this journal, so be honest.
When the week is over, read your pages and see if you notice any patterns. What times of day do you tend to reach for food? What are the physical or emotional feelings most connected with eating for you? Which foods make you feel comfortable, happy, and energized? Which make you feel tired, grouchy, or faintly ill?
Again, this takes a bit of work. That's why you don’t have to do it for very long. But when the experiment is over, you may find yourself continuing to pay attention to how different foods affect you. Take a curious, nonjudgmental approach. When a particular food doesn’t work for you, don’t beat yourself up -- just make a mental note to try something else next time.
Your body changes from day to day, and eating right is a constant experiment. It’s not a true-or-false quiz, or even multiple choice; it’s more of an essay test. Extra credit for thinking on your feet and reflecting on your past experience.