How keeping a food journal can boost your health

'Food journals aid in discovering what may be hindering weight loss.'
'Food journals aid in discovering what may be hindering weight loss.' Photo: Shutterstock

Get pen and paper out: writing down what you eat creates awareness around your food habits so you can make healthy changes.

When life coach Kris Deminick was healing from disordered eating three years ago, she began tracking her eating habits in a food journal as a way to analyse her eating habits and feelings. 

"The journal helped me identify what beliefs and emotional patterns triggered my eating behaviour and which scenarios made me feel the most challenged around food and my body," Deminick says.

"It also helped me recognise the negative thought patterns and stories I associated with certain foods."

After eight months, this awareness helped Deminick change her mindset about food patterns. 

"I went from feelings of restriction and guilt to choosing what I ate intuitively and with moderation," she says.

The act of writing down what you eat can make you think twice before giving in to mindless eating.

Instead of cutting out "bad" foods, she now reduces her intake of foods that don't make her body feel good. 

"As a result I'm much more present and relaxed around food especially at social occasions, which has left me with more mental and physical energy to savour other fun things in life.

Nutritionist Tracie Connor says self-monitoring food intake in a journal is an important tool in treatment of eating disorders.

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"This allows a person to become more conscious of their daily food choices and tendencies around their relationship with eating," she says. 

"In turn, this offers evidence to health professionals ... of what's really going on with a person's eating behaviour."

Naturopath Nicky Wood says a food diary can help people establish a normal and healthy relationship with food without creating further anxiety around eating.

"Once that's established it can act as motivation to offer them positive feedback on their progress but also prevent relapses by catching slip-ups," she says.  

Many people also record their food consumption in a diary to lose weight.

Research published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found dieters who kept a food diary for six months, as part of a weight management program, lost twice as much weight as those who didn't. The reason: Writing down what you eat makes you accountable for every bite of food that goes into your mouth, including high-energy indiscretions.

"Food journals aid in discovering what may be hindering weight loss, such as portion sizes, hidden calories in beverages, nutritionally imbalanced meals and can even pinpoint food intolerances that may prevent reaching health goals," Wood says. 

Additionally, the act of writing down what you eat can make you think twice before giving in to mindless eating – that's munching on a bag of chips in front of the TV.

"What happens is that it deters you from eating unhealthy food, mostly stemming from emotional issues, because you don't want to write it down," Wood says.

Connor agrees."There's personal ownership and often a feeling of more control with actions towards food choices. This process can be eye opening, allowing for good insight into food choices and preferences, even before a nutritionist reviews the journal."

Digital food diaries

Food journalling is traditionally done by pen and paper but in today's technological era electronic recording can be a great fit for a busy lifestyle.

A University of Washington study found that people are turning to Instagram as a place where they can log food intake and track healthy eating behaviours by posting photos of everything they eat - and being held accountable by followers is helping them stick to their goals.

 "As long as you're posting everything you're eating, this can actually motivate you by the constant feedback you're receiving, but it may also inspire and influence others going through something similar to begin looking after themselves," Wood says.

Furthermore, this can also act as a quick snapshot for a nutritionist to see if you're missing any key nutrients. "Just by looking at the colours of food on the plate and the portion sizes, healthy suggestions can be made," Wood says.

The downside to online posting is being shamed by followers but also receiving incomplete advice from unqualified nutritionists. "An easy way to rectify this would be to share your posts with a professional for a second opinion and ensure beforehand that any negative feedback won't affect you," Wood says.       

Food apps can be useful depending on their functionality. 

"Ultimately, food diary apps should allow [you] to enter food intake through text and an image, offer reminders to record food and drink consumption each day, and [allow] the ability to save the data or share it easily," Connor says.

"Anything other than this, such as calorie counting or providing better food choices, is a waste of time. An app isn't a health professional and doesn't understand the person's health history, therefore cannot be held accountable and is not qualified to suggest the best dietary advice or food alternatives."

How to keep a food journal

Jot down the following on a daily basis:

  • Everything you eat and drink over the course of the whole day
  • Time of eating
  • Thoughts or feelings associated with that meal, snack or beverage
  • Allergic reactions or side effects like hives or asthma
  • Exercise sessions
  • Lifestyle factors such as sleep patterns and energy levels