Given the “foodie” nature of our culture, we’re very conditioned to focus on what we eat and how it might be affecting our health, good or bad. But equally important is how we eat. What times, where, with who, how often, and whether we’re eating proactively to stay ahead of our hunger, or reactively in response to being starved, can all be big contributors to what we end up eating.
To really understand what’s going on with your diet and lifestyle, it’s important to be clear on what’s really going on between you and your food, and the simple of act of keeping a food diary is one of the single most effective things you can do to figure out both the “whats” and the “hows” of your diet.
Numerous studies show that keeping a food diary is highly effective at raising your awareness of what, where, when and why you’re eating, providing useful clues to target behavior change.
In fact, one study on people trying to lose weight showed that, along with attending weekly classes on nutrition and portion control, those who kept a food diary six days per week lost twice as much as those who logged only once per week or less.
Because human beings are not “hard wired” to notice everything we eat ““ as hunter/gatherers we were supposed to eat whatever edibles we could find ““ keeping a food journal is like conducting an “audit” of your eating habits so you can see if what you think you’re eating is accurate. Simply picking up your notebook, tapping into an electronic log on your smart phone, or recording in one of the many available on-line food logs, is a reminder that you’re trying to keep food in your focus, and think about what you eat as the day goes on.
At a minimum, track the times you eat or drink, what it was, and the amount to the best of your ability. If desired, you can also track where you were and your level of hunger. Here are a few things you may want to look out for as you audit your eating behavior:
- Do you set the right tone for the day by starting off with a decent breakfast? Studies tell us that those who skip breakfast tend to eat more at night, a pattern that strongly correlates to weight gain.
- Do you eat proactively by eating every 3-4 hours or so to stay ahead of your hunger, or do you wait until your starving and at high risk of overeating when you finally get around food?
- Does your food diary show lots of protein foods and starches without many fruits and vegetables?
- Are you more likely to overeat at night when you’ve been busily running around ““ and not eating ““ during the day?
- Are you drinking a lot of calories in liquid form?
These are just a few insights that keeping a food journal or diary may shine a light on.
It’s important, however, to view your food diary as a partner in your quest to figure out what you’re really doing with food, and what you may want to work to change, not as ammunition to beat yourself up with. Why not give it a try ““ maybe just for a few days to start ““ and see what you might learn about yourself?
After 12 years as a nutrition-based educator for Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates (HVMA), the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health’s Director of Nutrition Hillary Wright transitioned to a part-time position at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. She is also the founder of New Vision Nutrition in Arlington, Massachusetts — a private nutrition consulting practice that includes nutrition counseling, public speaking, and teaching nutrition to colleges and institutions. She is a contributing editor and regular writer for the newsletter “Environmental Nutrition” and is currently working with the Arlington Public Schools on grant-funded programs designed to increase nutrition, education and physical activity in the community. Hillary’s clinical interests include women’s health and nutritional management of polycycstic overy syndrome (PCOS).