Food Journaling – Helping or Hurting?

Steph Wagner

September 4, 2013

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I have been a Registered Dietitian for four years now. Sounds like only a few years, and yet feels like many. In these four years I have seen hundreds of clients (and I’ve seen them lose thousands of pounds). And somewhere in there, I have seen maybe 100 food journals.

Okay I’m making that number up. I have no idea how many food journals I’ve looked at. But to be honest, it’s a small fraction of the time someone has recorded their foods. I used to really, highly, deeply encourage people to keep and bring a food journal. A food record. A diet chronicle. Whatever you’d like to call it….just write down what you put in your pie hole and bring it to me! Okay, you’re right. I never said that.

After some time in this career, I’ve started to realize food journals aren’t for everyone. For some, they are a tremendous tool. For others, it brings more shame than help. I think it has a lot to do with knowing yourself well.

Here are a few thoughts I have to help you decipher if a food journal would HELP your weight control or in fact HINDER you.

1. Be very, very honest with yourself as you read these questions. Especially this one: does recording your food feel uncomfortable because you have to be honest and feel a bit of a “sting” when you record your eating habits? Or does it bring shame where you feel you fall deeper into a struggle with food?

2. Do you gain a little too much pride with a pretty food journal that when you do finally eat something you shouldn’t (and we all do) that you feel like you’ve failed and forget the whole thing?

3. Do you swear you just don’t have time to write down food and no method of easy tracking (phone ap, website, word doc, notepad) will ever be something you could make work?

4. Do you spend too much time working on your food journal that you are worried if you ate 3 ounces, or 4 ounces, or half a cup, or 2 tbsp?

Perhaps you are starting to follow where I am leading you. In my experience, asking these types of questions allow myself and my client to determine if a food journal is in fact a great source of accountability or instead something that makes them want to quit because they are overly concerned with the contents of the food journal.

My biggest and most important focus in this career is to guide people to freedom in food and that weight control will come alongside that. Did you catch that my main goal is not the weight-loss itself? It’s the freedom from an unhealthy relationship with food and weight. Food doesn’t hate us back, it doesn’t love us back.

A food journal does not define anything about you. It doesn’t say what kind of a person you are. If you emailed me your food journal and I had never met you, I wouldn’t be able to say a single thing about you…except maybe that you like cheese and you don’t drink very much water. I don’t know a single thing about your character. Your relationships. What makes you want to dance and what makes your blood want to boil.

To the one who puts too much value in a food journal, I tell them to let go of it. And let go of the scale while they are at it, because I guarantee you they are weighing in too often. Instead focus on enjoying food, remembering where it comes from, and being grateful for a good and healthy meal. We have bigger fish to fry than perfecting the journal (okay bad wording…no, I don’t recommend frying your fish). By the way, if the food journal were perfect..I would either doubt it’s accuracy or wonder how long this could last.

To the ones who swear off food journaling and swear there is no time or just don’t want to be held accountable, I ask for 3 days a week of a food record. Not everyday. Not overly detailed. Just what you ate at what time of day and that’s it. Not the portion. Not the calories. Just the info. What and when for 3 days a week.

Sometimes the “wake up call” is just what we need. And to the one I told to kick the journal to the curb – that may not be forever. As a healthy relationship with food grows, a food journal a few days a week may be a very appropriate tool. We can get past the overly emotional response of what was eaten, and instead focus on what improvements can be made without getting upset about it. And let me tell you, this is a HUGE accomplishment when we get here!! 

Accountability is uncomfortable. It’s going to be. Just like when Mr W and I sit down at the end of each month and compare our “predicted budget” to our “actual budget.” It’s uncomfortable. We are accountable to each other, and we are accountable to the budget. But we must get past the emotion and look at the facts. What money was spent, when and why? What can we learn? How can we improve? We will never reach any financial goals without going through this process.

Thus the same is true for the dreaded journal. It’s uncomfortable. It’s going to be. It’s more for you than it is for me (or whoever else will see it.) You are accountable to me, you are accountable to the journal. But try your best to move away from the emotion. Take a look at it from a factual point of view. See what changes can be made, what lessons can be learned, and don’t forget to look at what improvements have been made since that last time you had to look.

And you know what? In my experience…it’s rarely as bad as you think. And sometimes it actually is ; ) 

Helpful Food Journal Resources:

  • MyFitnessPal (also has phone app)
  • Calorie King by Fat Secret (terrible name, great phone app) 
  • FitDay.com (also has app)  

For more information on the nutrition coaching services I can offer, visit the services page or contact me directly for more info.

7 thoughts on “Food Journaling – Helping or Hurting?”

  1. Steph,

    Just curious is the Ezekial: 9 bread (flourless). Ok to eat when you have had a sleeve I am a little over 1 year out. BTW good article on food journaling. Or is it forever no bread pasta or rice?

  2. I wonder if our conversation made you think of this blog post?! You have lots of clients so I know you work on this with lots of people. Something in me dreads the journal the accountability..the wrong that I see in it and yet many times by choice I believe. Nevertheless, I am working with mine to email you eventually..some good, some bad…I do love the thought to “guide people to freedom of food and alongside that comes weight loss.” I feel excited that I have already felt that in myself. Yet at other times I’ve chose to make wrong choices. Does that make sense? I know I shouldn’t but I ‘m going to..anyway..this blog was great Thank you.

  3. Hmm I looked it up and it has quite a bit of carbohydrates compared to protein. I would try to keep protein and carbs balanced when looking at a label- but that can depend on what it is. I avoid bread/pasta/rice for hunger and weight control – so I recommend the same for postop patients for good weight maintenance! Special occasions or situations differ and those require your best judgement :)

  4. I love that you are making freedom the first priority! The first step to health is having a healthy relationship with health :) Now does THAT make sense? Haha. When you start focusing on the right reasons to make good choices, it comes a little easier. I’ll be looking for your journal!

  5. Hi Jennifer! I recommend using a ratio of protein to carbs to fat. I like Food Journals that calculate that for me like on MyFitnessPal. I look at the pie chart and set a goal of 50% protein, 30% fat and 20% carbs. I hope that helps!

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