03 Nov How to do a Food Journal
KEEP A NUTRITION JOURNAL THAT WORKS FOR YOU
As a nutrition coach I routinely field questions about what and how much to eat. Most of the time the questions are geared toward weight loss.
Losing weight is complex, no doubt about it. I wish I could give a simple answer and say something along the lines of “don’t eat this eat that”, then boom! The fat melts off.Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. The response I give people is actually a question: “How much are you currently eating?” To this, most people reply with blank stares.
To make a change (in this instance to eat differently then the current style) you have to be aware that a change is necessary. More specifically, you need to know how much you are currently eating and, sometimes, why you eat. Being aware of your current eating style is essential in order to create any type of change. A daily weigh in is one way of seeing your current status, but it doesn’t paint the clearest picture. A weigh in is a result that is being shaped by habits (how you’re eating and/or exercising).
Without an understanding of where you are, you will never know how far you can go or what step you need to take to get there. It sounds like a cheesy cliché, but there is something foundational about the previous message.
As a culture, we tend to fixate on a food or a food type and blame it for all of our overweight issues. We think that stubborn fat is the result of gluten, that thick thighs come from too many sweets, and the muffin top is a result of late night cereal. While you may argue that these can be true, in reality nutrition just doesn’t work that way.
Food itself is not the cause of a growing waistline, at least not entirely. Excess weight comes from excess intake of food, regardless of whether it is laced with gluten, raw, or paleo.
Excess food leads to a surplus of energy and if that energy is not used it will be stored, usually as fat. Excess intake is usually the result of habits formed from traditions, culture, addictions, likes, dislikes, etc.
So back to the topic of this message, food journals, but more importantly…awareness.
What is awareness of food and how do we create it?
Awareness of how you’re currently eating gives you the context of your current habits with food. Context is king when it comes to giving nutrition advice. Without the proper context, the advice loses all value and usability.
Here are a few fictitious examples:
Person #1 wants to lose 5-10 pounds but has a busy work schedule with a 30 minute lunch break. They also stay up late catching up on The Walking Dead and wake up with just enough time to get dressed and go to work. After recording what they ate in a food journal, they noticed that their meals are chosen for convenience. Breakfast is coffee and a donut from the gas station close to work. Lunch is usually a processed meal (microwave plate, and fast food options) so that they can eat during their 30 minute break window. Dinner is left for picking something up on the way home from work so they can watch tv. This person could benefit from a simple tip like boiling eggs during their favorite show so they can have a breakfast ready in the morning. Another tip would be to identify better fast food options and improve the quality of what they are currently buying for lunch. Dinner could be improved by mixing few pieces of rotisserie chicken from a deli with pre-packaged salad ingredients. Ultimately this nutrition advice is not a focus on calories or macronutrients, it’s more of a focus on having a structure in place to allow better choices to be made.
Person #2 is an avid gym junkie who plans out their meals for the week, trains 4-5 hours a week and loves having frosted mini wheats after every workout, but they can’t figure out why the feel bloated after every workout. After doing an awareness journal (writing down what you eat and why you eat) this person becomes aware that they are not hungry when they eat the frosted mini wheats but eat them as a habit. After all, they have to hit the anabolic window right? The journal shows that eating the mini wheat without being hungry may be overloading their digestive system and causing the uncomfortable symptoms. The advice here would focus on removing the food that is causing the symptom, not converting them to another eating style and way of life.
So, when I get asked “what do I need to eat to lose weight”, The answer is “I really don’t know until I know how you are currently eating.”
A better question would be “ Can you take a look at my journal and give me some guidance?”
As I write this, I understand that journaling is not an exact science and studies show food journals can be off by 20% or more. Having said that, it is still a tool that can provide valuable information when done the appropriate way.
Journaling gives us some context and can help an individual (or coach) choose more individualized action steps. This is critical for success when making nutrition changes. Without context, you’re basically shooting blanks.
Journaling can be customized to your goals and that can give you valuable insight into your nutrition habits. Here’s a couple tips when journaling your food.
You can track food, calories, feelings, time, portion sizes, meal timing, symptoms, hunger, and much more. The idea is to journal information that helps you get closer to your goal.
For example, if your goal is to deadlift your body weight, you should track your desire to train. An excessive calorie deficit (not eating enough) can cause you to lack energy and have a lack of desire to train. Missed sessions can lead to missed personal records in your lifts. Being aware that you lack a desire to train can be valuable information that identifies that you are not eating enough for your goal.
Gathering the information can also vary. You can record on computers, excel sheets, phones, or good ole paper and pencil. Regardless of what you journal on, here is a guide to help you build your own awesome journal:
Scale based journal (1-10) with 1 being the least and 10 being the most:
Willingness to train: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (calorie deficit can hinder performance)
Sleep quality: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (calorie deficit can effect quality of sleep)
Hunger after eating a meal: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (practicing being 80% full can improve body composition)
How hungry was I before eating: (eating without hunger can be assign of mindless eating habit and excess calories)
How hungry was I after eating: (feeling overly stuffed after a meal may be s sign of excess food)
What did I feel physically and emotionally before/after eating: (this can be a great practice for identifying how and why you eat certain foods)
Data collection journals:
This is usually collected as a total for the end of the day or end of the week. Usually a target is assigned that matches a goal of weight loss or weight gain. The total calorie intake can further be broken down into food categories i.e. whole foods and “junk” food ratios.
Protein carbohydrate and fat are the macronutrients tracked for consumption. These can be broken down into calorie goals, portion sizes, or grams. Like calories, the macronutrient breakdowns can be configured for various goals i.e. thermic effect, somatotype, percentages, etc.
Time of meal
The time of meal is usually tracked to identify eating habits, improve food partitioning times, and/or spacing of meals to improve satiety.
(Depending on your goal, these can be used to analyze if you are adhering to the program.)
Building your own food journal can have as much or as minimum data as your prefer. The main point is to collect enough to give you an idea of what and why you are eating. Having enough data then allows you to make an informed decision about the next step to take.
As stated before, advice is only valuable if you know the context of the person using it. Telling someone to cut out salt because it is bad for you is not good advice if they have chronically low sodium levels. To solve this, we need to become better at being aware of our food choices. Creating your own personalized journal is the best way to make create this awareness and make smart, actionable changes.
Jesus Acuña, CSCS, Pn1