Whenever I start working with a new client, the first thing I have them do (before we even talk for the first time!), is keep a food journal. This is also something I recommend to anyone who is trying to get a handle on their eating habits, or just feel better in general. Food plays such an important role in our health and well-being, and most of us have no idea what we put into our bodies every day.
When I first started classes in nutrition school, one of my very first assignments was to keep a food journal for five days, and then analyze it. At the time, I was eating a vegan diet, and thought it was so healthy – never mind that I was tired all the time, moody and perpetually bloated. I just didn’t connect the way I was feeling to the foods I was eating. That is, until I wrote it all down and took a good, hard look. I was kind of a mess. This exercise really helped me to see that I would become really tired after eating certain foods, or that I would be really bloated the day after eating others. This food journal exercise not only showed me that I was mindlessly eating junk food on a regular basis, but also highlighted patterns that eventually led my doctor to determine that I have Celiac. Crazy!
Now, I’m not suggesting that this exercise is as profound for everyone, but it definitely helps. So, let’s take a look at how to do this!
How Long Do I Need to Keep a Food Journal?
It’s important to note right out of the gate that I don’t advocate keeping a food journal for longer than 60 days, and this long duration would only be in the case of elimnation diets, where you’re trying to figure out which foods are causing certain symptoms. Most people will want to keep a food journal for about 5 days. This is enough time to get a general idea of what you eat on a day-to-day basis, and should help you see basic patterns in how you feel.
If you really just want a quick glimpse – try tracking for 3 days. This way, you’ll get a general idea of your caloric intake, macronutrient ratios, and note any big things that jump out at you (maybe you didn’t realize how little liquid you actually drink!).
What Do I Need to Write Down?
You should be writing down everything you eat (snacks, supplements, that sample you tried at the grocery store – everything), the quantity you ate, the time you ate it at, and how you feel immediately after. You can also write down how you feel upon waking up, going to bed, and any other time during the day that you notice a change. For instance, if you always feel really tired at 4pm – write it down, even if it isn’t right after eating.
Do I Need to Buy a Journal?
If you want to, because office supplies are super fun, I’m not going to say no! However, it really isn’t necessary. You can write things down in a notebook, on lined paper in a binder, or on a food journal template, which you can download from me here!
How Do I Analyze My Food Journal
While it may seem daunting at first, this is actually not that hard! You’ll first want to plug in all the data into a program like MyFitnesPal, in order to get a general feel for how much protein, fat and carbohydrate you’re eating. MyFitnessPal will allow you to see this in both a numerical list, and in a pie chart. You’ll also want to pay attention to how many calories you eat. You may be quite surprised to see that the actual number is a lot different from what you thought!
Next, you’ll want to start looking for patterns – do you get heartburn after eating dairy? Do you get hives a few hours after eating nuts? These observations can really help to illuminate potential intolerances.
Remember, if there are any things that seem really off, be sure to talk to your doctor!
What Do I Do With the Information?
Basically, you’ll want to use your food journal to help tailor what you eat. If you notice that you never eat enough protein, work on adding more protein-rich foods into your meals. Maybe you realize that you’re never actually hungry for breakfast, but tend to eat a huge meal anyway. Shifting breakfast to be an hour later, when you are actually hungry, might help you to eat better throughout the day.
If you’re doing an elimination diet, obviously you’ll want to start removing or reintroducing foods based on your findings, but that’s a whole other article in itself!
Looking at your journal alone can provide helpful information to guide you in the right direction. Usually just seeing what you eat and drink in a day can provide valuable insight.
Important Things to Remember:
- Write down quantities of foods (even if it’s just a rough estimate)
- Write down every little thing – even if it doesn’t seem important, it’s good to note!
- Be honest – it doesn’t help if you fudge the numbers a bit.
- Track liquids – whether it’s coffee, tea, water or soda – write it down!
- Try to be objective in your analysis – look for patterns (are you always bloated immediately after eating something? how about the next day?)
- You don’t need to be obsessive – 5-7 days should be more than enough information
- Any time you start to feel less than great, or stagnant, it’s not a bad idea to try keeping a food journal!