Dear Dr. Bell,
I want to make some better choices with my eating habits throughout the week. What are your opinions on Food Diaries? They seem like alot of effort. Do you recommend using them?
What is the real purpose of a Food Diary?
Most people think keeping a Food Diary is all about counting calories in order to lose weight.
While that may be true to some extent, keeping a Food Diary can give you insight into patterns, behaviors, triggers, portions, food intolerances and so much more. A Food Diary goes way above and beyond the basics of calories in, calories out.
I had a client that discovered her terrible migraines were a result of onions.
If used correctly, a Food Diary can greatly improve your overall health in ways that could surprise you.
The number one benefit that a Food Diary provides is awareness.
What did you eat today?
That is the most common response with new clients. People do not pay attention to what, when and how much they are eating.
The first day of training with new clients, I always liked to have them take a few minutes to guess what they ate during a normal week, the portion sizes, how often, etc.
After a week of training, and recording their habits, how accurate do you think they were?
You probably aren’t shocked to realize, they weren’t.
Do you know what breakfast, lunch and dinner all have in common? We consider them free time. And do you know what happens with “free time”? We kill it, and use “free time” to tackle other things.
How many meals a week do you think you skip? I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had that discover they will skip a minimum of 3 meals a week.
The awareness a Food Diary provides gives you accountability. When you are required to jot down what you just put into your mouth, you start to really think about what you are consuming.
I had one client admit she stopped snacking at her desk, because she was too lazy to track it.
Hey, whatever works.
Bottom line, accountability will help you avoid mindless eating and truly understand portion control.
When you measure food, you realize your idea of a serving size and an actual serving size, can be two totally different things.
It’s a sad day when one realizes that just because it fits on one plate, doesn’t mean it’s one portion size.
Almost every single client I ever had underestimated what they were eating, by a great deal.
Hunger or Convenience?
It seems like we are always celebrating someone’s birthday, anniversary, new baby, promotion, etc., at the office. We even have a potluck one day a month. You can bet at least once a week we have a food spread at lunch of tempting options and of course, the food is available all day. How easy is it to steal another cookie during a break? Remember your goals and really think… is it hunger or convenience?
A Food Diary gives you the big picture
It’s not just about what and how much you are eating.
How often are you eating?
At what times of the days are you consuming unhealthy food?
How does eating different things make you feel?
What are the triggers?
For example, you will be able to look at an entire week and see that at 3pm Monday-Friday, you are having a Venti Double Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino with whipped cream (over 700 calories).
That’s a ridiculous number of calories. Most people don’t realize how an afternoon coffee can have such a substantial impact on their Daily Caloric Intake.
Another example, you might realize you eat lunch at noon and then don’t eat anything else until you pick up the kids from school at 5:00pm. After you drop them off at practice, you are so hungry, you stop by Dunkin every day and get a Pumpkin muffin (550 calories) and a Black Coffee.
You learn patterns, triggers and how to adjust your food intake throughout the day.
Pattern: Dunkin at 5:00pm,
Trigger: Starvation from waiting too long between meals
Adjustment: Preplanned protein shake or healthy snack at 3:00pm
It is important you are also tracking how you feel.
Bloated after yogurt? Bloated after milk? Bloated after cheese?
You might realize you have a sensitivity to milk products.
There is a wide range from being Allergic to Sensitive to Intolerant.
You might already eat very clean during the week, but how much variety are you getting?
Are you eating the same things over and over?
Are you getting all the nutrients you need?
Chicken and rice with a side of broccoli is fantastic, but your body needs variety to perform to its absolute potential. Add 1 or 2 servings of wild caught fish per week, add some free-range beef. Change out the broccoli for squash, brussel sprouts, carrots, etc.
Variety keeps things fresh and provides your body all the different nutrients it needs.
What to Include?
When my clients are at the beginning stages of a Food Diary, I require them to be as specific as possible and cover all the following fields for at least 30 days.
- When are you eating? Track the date and exact time.
- What you are eating? This includes foods, beverages, sauces, dressing, toppings, etc., “the whole shebang”.
- How much are you eating? Serving sizes. It’s time consuming, but very important. Measure or weigh your food.
- Where are you eating? Are you at a restaurant, in front of a computer at work, watching TV?
- Who are you eating with? Are you alone, with friends, at an office party, with the kids?
- How are you feeling? Are you tired? Are you sick? Are you stressed? Are you bored?
- Hunger Radar! Are you starving? Are you even hungry at all?
Tips for Success
My biggest advice for all my clients’ is, don’t wait until the end of the day to track your food.
It is much easier to track on the go. By the end of the day it is difficult to recall everything we ate the entire day. You will not be accurate.
Equally important is to set yourself up for success by planning ahead. If you do not have access to healthy options during the day, meal plan.
Honestly, even if you do have access to healthy options, it can still be better to prepare your own food ahead of time, with better ingredients, the correct portion sizes, the variety you need, without the temptation of other options.
Plan your meals, make your meals, pack your meals.
Something else I highly recommend, is that you weigh yourself naked every morning.
Get up, do your bathroom habits and then weigh yourself.
Do this the same time every morning.
This will correlate very well with what your Food Diary tells you and how much you gain or lose weight.
I have done this with clients for decades with nothing but success. There is always the occasional academic pinhead that has never trained a client in their life and is usually living the opposite of a healthy lifestyle, who will preach weighing yourself everyday will cause eating disorders. This is absurd. I have NEVER had a client do this in my entire career. I promise, adding this step will only allow for your Food Diary to become more effective. It is however your choice. If you are uncomfortable with this, do not do it.
Do what works for you
There are a ton of resources to track your food. You can go “old school” and track your food on good old, pen and paper. You can use the multitude of Food Tracker apps out there. While my daughter was breastfeeding and tracking what she ate, she used the “notes” app on her phone and at the end of the day transferred everything over to her journal.
Bottom line do what works for you and keep at it.
Sustains and Improves. After a week, take a look. What are you doing well? What are you not? Look for patterns. Look for triggers, recognize where you constantly have issues and adjust.
A Food Diary is just like anything else, it’s what you make it. If you simply track what you eat, but don’t make any adjustments, nothing is going to change. If you lie, you are only cheating yourself. Remember, you started this Food Diary for a reason. You started this process for a purpose. Stay tough. Do the work, put in the time and I promise a Food Diary will get you results.