Need to Know
  1. A food journal can be used for more than counting calories
  2. To eat more mindfully, track what, when, where, why & how

For many people, food logging conjures up images of Weight Watchers points and restrictive dieting. But done the right way, a food log can be about far more than how many calories were in that burger. A food diary can help you ID craving triggers, stress-eating habits and food ruts, giving you valuable information that you can use to improve your health.

A few key things to keep in mind: (1) It’s important to have a goal to keep your food logging focused. Are you trying to decrease portion sizes? Eat more fruits and vegetables? Stop bingeing when stressed? (2) Be honest with yourself. If you ate three slices of cake, don’t write down that you had one. If you want to only eat one piece next time, you need to understand why you had three pieces today. This isn’t about judgement, it’s about knowledge.

With that in mind, here are five questions to ask yourself each time you log an entry:

 1. WHAT are you eating or drinking?  If someone were to replicate this meal, snack or beverage, could they do so given just the information you logged?  You want to include as much detail as possible about the type of item, such as brand or variety. If you made a dish from scratch, include the recipe.

2. WHEN did you eat? Be sure to note the time of day you ate or drank as it can help you see patterns. For instance, do you always eat a snack an hour after breakfast? Or crave cookies after lunch? You can also include the amount of time it took you to eat. Eating too quickly can make it harder for our brains to get the message that we’re full.

3. WHERE did you eat? Noting where a meal, snack or beverage was consumed can show you routines you might not be aware of. Maybe you always eat pretzels while watching TV. Or if you hit the coffee shop in the afternoon, you typically buy a cookie.

4. WHY did you eat?  When you live in a world that’s always on the go, it’s easy to start eating on autopilot. It’s important to ask yourself whether you’re eating out of true physical hunger or simply because you’re bored, stressed or sad. To help uncover this, rate your level of hunger/fullness from one to ten (1 = I’m so hungry I feel weak, 5 = I feel neutral, 10 = I’m so stuffed I’m uncomfortable).  This can be done before, during and/or even after a meal.

5. HOW much did you eat? It is possible to have too much of a good thing no matter how nutritious the food or beverage.  How much you eat or drink has a huge impact on energy intake and how you feel afterwards.  Be sure to  include quantities of what you eat and drink, even it’s just a guesstimate. This isn’t about calorie-counting; it’s about understanding how a given amount of food makes you feel.

Here’s an example of a detailed entry:

BEFORE: Not hungry, but feel like I should eat.

7:30 – 7:40am (Kitchen): ½ cup rolled oats (dry) with 1 cup milk, 1 medium banana and dash of cinnamon, and 1.5 cups Honey Nut Cheerios with 1 cup milk

AFTER: Stuffed! Feeling rushed!

At first, it might seem like work to log each meal, but view it as a temporary investment of time and energy that will have long-lasting impacts on your eating habits. When you’ve accomplished your goal(s), it’s perfectly OK to decide that you’re done and set the journal aside. You can always pull it out and use it as a reference if needed.