Dietician Digest: The Benefits of Keeping a Food Journal

by Christi Bowling, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD

The new year has arrived, which means many people will begin to make resolutions to improve their health. Making these changes often starts with changing what you eat. Keeping a food journal can be an extremely helpful tool in providing insight into current unhealthy dietary trends. In 2008, a study of 1,700 people conducted by the Kaiser Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon found that dieters who kept a food journal for six months lost twice as much weight as those who kept no food record. Another study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that overweight and obese women in diet-only or diet plus exercise weight loss groups all lost weight. However, those who kept a food journal shed an average of six extra pounds.

There are several insights that can come about through the process of keeping a food journal. For example, it is important to record not just what food you eat and how much is being consumed, but how you are feeling emotionally at mealtimes, as well as hunger and fullness ratings before and after eating. Some people are triggered by an emotional response as opposed to physical hunger (i.e. bored, sad, anxious, angry or worried). Others notice they are eating out of habit (i.e. in front of the TV). These insights are important because it gives the user information to aid in forming new habits and help find ways to deal with emotions in other ways than turning to food.

Keeping a food journal can also help you determine how much you are really eating. In a study by Cornell University, researchers used a hidden camera to observe patrons at an Italian restaurant. Just five minutes after the meal was over, they asked diners how much bread they consumed. Most people ate about 30% more than they thought, and 12% of people who were seen eating bread on camera denied having any at all. These results show that eating is often mindless, especially when distracted by things like carrying on a conversation or checking emails. Recording meals in real-time will help to give insight into portion control, and one thing I recommend to my patients is to slightly overestimate their portion sizes to help reduce recording error.  

In addition, keeping a journal of your food intake can help spot any food groups that you are lacking that could potentially be depriving you of important nutrients. You may see only one or two fruit and vegetable servings a day, which is far less than the nine recommended daily servings. You may also notice you are eating more processed and restaurant foods instead of healthier, more nutrient-dense choices. It may also help you discover when you are eating more unhealthy options. Perhaps you notice that around certain social groups/settings you eat more unhealthy options in larger portions than at other times. This can help you become more aware and choose healthier options when out with certain people/groups, or encourage you to choose a healthy snack ahead of a social gathering in order to reduce larger portions of unhealthy foods.  

When deciding that you will start keeping a food journal, here are the main things to keep track of that will help give you the most insight:

  • What are you eating?
  • How much are you eating?
  • When are you eating?
  • Where are you eating?
  • What else are you doing while eating?
  • Who are you eating with?
  • How are you feeling as you’re eating?

Here are some additional tips for keeping a successful food journal:

  • Write down the food and beverage as soon as you consume it. Don’t wait until the end of the day because the recollection may be less accurate.
  • Be as specific as you can with the food or beverage. For example, if you are having cereal, note what type, what serving size, and if anything was added (i.e. sugar or fruit).
  • Be sure to include any alcoholic beverages.
  • I always recommend a smartphone app such as Lose It! or MyFitnessPal. They offer great information on calories and restaurant options.

After keeping a food journal for a couple of weeks, certain patterns may start to appear. Here are some things to reflect upon:

  • How healthy is my diet?
  • Am I eating vegetables and fruit every day? If so, how many servings?
  • Am I eating whole grains every day?
  • Am I eating foods or beverages with added sugar? How often?
  • Do my moods impact my eating habits? Do I choose unhealthy snacks when stressed/tired/anxious?
  • How often do I eat on the run?

Keeping a food journal can be extremely informative and helpful in moving you towards improved health. Use the data from the food journal to set goals and track your progress along with the help of your Care Coordinator at MetaPhy Health to start your journey for a healthier 2020.

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