The food journal is the simplest, most powerful weapon in your fight to awesome nutrition. So why aren’t you using one right now?
We tend to think that we eat “pretty good most of the time.”
But do we really?
After all, can you remember with any kind of clarity what you ate yesterday? How much of it you ate?
For most of us we can easily justify recent meal choices; the bad ones are considered to be so infrequent that they are inconsequential, while we inflate our good dietary choices (“I ate one veggie yesterday, so I deserve this large pepperoni pizza!”).
The reality is this…
We stink at self-awareness.
The denial that it feeds are at the root of why so many of us struggle with our diets and nutrition.
The first key to addressing your nutrition and to cleaning things up in our belly is to gain a proper understanding of what we are actually eating, and not what we think we ate, or what our best-laid intentions wanted us to eat.
And this begins by measuring and tracking your meals with a food journal.
What gets measured, gets changed.
When you start keeping a food journal some badassery starts to happen:
- You gain a deeper understanding of how you perform eating certain foods.
- You see the relationship between what you eat and how you feel.
- Get a broader understanding of why you eat (it’s not always because you are hungry!).
- And you learn to target when you are most susceptible to eating like crap.
Whatever your goals are in the gym, on the playing field, or in the pool, or in life, your food journal is a massively powerful weapon in our battle to eat better, feel better, and perform better.
We are going to further discuss some of the cool-ass stuff that happens as a result of journaling our meals and outline some best practices for making the most of this tool.
Let us be doing the damn thing!
Why Food Journals are So Powerful
Here is a deeper look at just some of the things that begin to happen when you take a few moments to document each of your meals:
You gain a much clearer understanding of how you are actually eating.
Here’s the fundamental problem most of us have with eating:
Reality rarely matches perception.
We underestimate how much crap we eat while simultaneously overestimating how much good food we are eating.
Denial is a constant, slippery thing, always playing games with our minds and fueling needless cravings that keep us from improving the way we do things in the kitchen.
“Oh, you didn’t eat that bad yesterday, you can splurge a little today.”
“Pretty sure you had like three servings of veggies the other day, that calls for a pizza. You deserve it.”
And so on.
A food journal shines a powerful light on what we are eating, while calling out Mr. Denial for the self-sabotaging dumb-dumb that he is.
The voice of denial and “ah, screw it” that populates our meal choices can finally be wrangled and subdued (not completely, but to a manageable level) when we see with clarity what we are putting in our mouths once and for all.
Points out the shortcomings of your current diet plan.
Now that you got some awareness of your meals you start to see the strengths and weaknesses of your food intake.
You might notice that you are not getting nearly enough carbs before your workouts. Or that you aren’t getting enough protein over the course of the day. Or that you are critically short in the minerals and vitamins that are so crucial for recovery.
Your food journal opens the lid on the things that are holding you back from better workouts and better health. And the first step to fixing things is knowing what to start on.
Teaches you that you don’t always eat because you are hungry.
Eating food seems like a straight-forward thing: You get hungry, you get food in your mouth.
Simple as that, right?
But there is more to why you eat than straight-up hunger. In fact, a lot of the time you aren’t even eating because you are hungry. Other motives, like how you’re feeling, how rested you are, and even what you are doing play a role.
There are times where you pile-drive food against the back of your throat because of boredom. Or because you sat in front of the TV and it acts as a trigger for you to eat. Or because you had a crappy-ass day and eating a couple slices of pizza will soothe the stress and frustration.
Motive matters—often times you can cut down on a lot of unnecessary eating simply by being aware of the times where you eat for reasons other than hunger.
It shows you that your volume isn’t as accurate as you think either.
Portion control is one of the harder things to master in the kitchen. (And another reason I absolutely love meal prepping.)
We are bad at it for a few different reasons, one of which includes simply not knowing how much a “cup” actually is. Similar to a “calorie”—it’s impossible to visualize accurately, and as a result we tend to ballpark in the direction that favors our cravings.
Research at Cornell demonstrated just how bad we are at this—when a group of students were asked to estimate the number of calories in a series of different fast food meals they consistently underestimated calories.
When filled out correctly, a food journal will show you with precision the numbers behind the food you are consuming. This awareness (there’s that word again!) means you can’t hide behind ignorance and statements such as, “Oh, it can’t be that bad for me” when you sit down to eat.
Helps to curtail mindless eating.
Some interesting research done at Cornell University used hidden cameras to watch diners at an Italian restaurant.
Minutes after their meal was completed, diners were surveyed to gauge how much they ate. The diners under-reported how much they were eating by around 30%, which is staggering.
But if you think about it, this makes sense.
After all, we eat so often, usually completely habitually, that we don’t really stop to think about what we are eating and how much. (Part of this is that we are more likely to eat what we see, and not necessarily what we want to eat.)
The food journal breaks this routine and forces you to stop and reflect on what you are eating.
Shows you how much of a role environment plays.
One thing you will quickly see is that the environment at each meal—where you are, who you are with—play a fundamental role in what you eat.
We all have those enablers in our lives, the ones who can convince us to go for burgers and fries with an innocent smile and a– “Whaddya think?”
Likewise, you may also see a streak of awful meals that take place at the same time every day because you are stuck at the cafeteria and there is a lack of healthy food options.
It’s the ultimate accountability tool in the kitchen.
Because we have such a foggy, short-term memory we don’t have much in terms of accountability in the kitchen. We eat what we want to eat, and have no one to answer to.
A food journal, however, can provide a backstop and give you pause before succumbing to cravings and overeating.
In a study done by Kaiser Permanante with 1,700 participants trying to lose weight researchers found that the more food records people kept, the more weight they lost. Twice as much, in fact.
“It seems that the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories,” lead author Jack Hollis Ph.D.
Writing out the meals forces us to be more conscious of what we are eating.
“It’s the process of reflecting on what you eat that helps us become aware of our habits, and hopefully change our behavior,” adds Dr. Keith Bachman.
It’s an invaluable tool for your nutrition specialist.
If you end up sitting down with a sports dietitian or nutritionist at some point—and I cannot recommend enough that you do—this is something you are going to have to start doing anyway.
For them to build a meal plan and nutrition strategy for you they are going to have to get under the hood of how you are currently eating.
With a couple weeks worth of meals under your belt they can review it and put together a plan that is based on your lifestyle and the foods you like.
Can help you connect the dots behind foods and performance.
The biggie. Better eating results in better performance. It’s truly as simple as that. The bizarre thing is that we have all been told this since day one. Eat your veggies! Drink lots of water! Stop pulling your sister’s hair!
This isn’t anything new.
For me, the ah-ha moment didn’t come until I had been keeping a food journal for two weeks. It was impossible not to see the connection between the meals I was writing out and the way I was feeling.
From GI to energy levels everything had improved, and I had the written proof of why that it had happened. It was impossible to ignore.
A food journal will viscerally demonstrate what works for you and your body…and what doesn’t. It can also help you better lock down food insensitivities, something a great majority of us suffer with in one form or another.
5 Tips for Keeping a Powerful Food Journal
If you are a first-timer at this, or haven’t had much experience with tracking your food, here are some guidelines for making the most of this process:
1. Don’t go overboard on details.
One of the good-intentioned mistakes people make when starting a food journal is to go into full detail.
Everything is detailed to mineral content, exact weight, calorie count, how many sips of water, etc.
While I applaud the desire to make change, this kind of detailed note taking is tedious, tiring, and is hard to sustain.
Start by drilling down the basics—they are the things that are going to make the most difference.
Focus on a couple key principles that are directly related to your individual goals—portion size, motivation for eating (more on that next!) and how you felt.
2. Note why you ate what you ate.
How rarely do we pause to think about why we are eating something? Not often, if you are like me and most people.
“I eat when I’m hungry, duh,” you’re probably thinking.
But is that really the case?
After all, there are times where you stuffed your face-hole with food not because you were hungry, but because you were bored. Or stressed out. Or maybe, you were actually hungry.
It’s worth noting the difference.
When you take five seconds to jot down why you just ate something it starts to clarify the reason you found yourself standing before the fridge.
Power Up This Tip: Write a quick note about what you were doing and where you were while you chowed down. You’ll find that specific things in your environment play a powerful but super sneaky influence on what you eat. I never really understood why my parents didn’t like that we ate in the living room while watching television. What’s the big deal, right? Turns out our untrustworthy little monkey brain begins to associate television-watching with food. So just like Pavlov’s dogs our mouths start to water when we hear the intro song to Monday Night Football even though we just ate half an hour ago.
3. Write your meals down as you go.
Accuracy is key, and is important for getting the most of your food journal.
This means keeping it up-to-date over the course of the day, and not sitting down a couple minutes before bed and ballparking what you ate that day.
The point of our food journal is self-awareness, and this can only happen when we are honest with ourselves and accurate with our meals and intake.
For this reason keep your food journal portable, convenient, and easily accessible.
4. Connect the dots with mood and energy.
The great power in keeping a food journal isn’t necessarily in the weight lost, or the gains in muscle size, or whatever it is you are trying to hack your diet in order to achieve.
This is going to sound silly, but the best thing that happened out of finally getting my diet under control wasn’t being able to trim off the last couple pounds. Or even the new-found confidence that I really could control my cravings and hunger.
It was the general sense of wellness that’s hard to describe but impossible to miss when it happens.
Make a note of your energy levels and mood over the course of the day. Patterns will start to emerge. Being able to draw a direct correlation to the food you are eating and the way you are feeling will do more for you than losing a couple pounds ever will.
5. Write out your meals ahead of time.
I have talked previously on the nearly miraculous power of meal prepping. Yes, it takes a little bit of planning, but the benefits are monstrous.
You can invoke the spirit of meal planning and preparing in your food journal by deciding ahead of time what you want to eat. This can help chill out those practically inconsolable cravings when they pile-drive you in the middle of the afternoon.
After all, if you are like most you don’t really think about what you eat. Sure, you might think about what you are going to eat in the craving-drunk moments before you cram your mouth full of food, but with little thought to portion, content and performance.
Planning your meals ahead of time and writing ‘em out in your food journal allows you to rationally decide what you are going to eat without being overcome by cravings.
Power Up This Tip: Target your worst meal. I’ve never struggled with breakfast. (Lots of willpower still first thing in the morning.) I’m usually pretty solid for a healthy lunch as well. But then dinner time…oh dinner, you salty bastard. My willpower almost always collapses around this time. Schedule what you are going to eat ahead of time to help fight back against when your willpower is running on fumes.
Benefits of Food Journals — FAQs
Why is nutritional planning important?
A food journal also serves as a way to plan your nutrition ahead of time, also known as meal planning. As the old saying goes, fail to plan, plan to fail.
Nutritional planning means you are taking control of your diet. Instead of eating what you feel like, you ear for optimal functioning and can tailor your meals for your individual goals and preferences.
Nutritional planning apps and books have made huge strides in recent years, using detailed questionnaires that generate custom meal plans specific to your needs.
We’ve become a nation of under-nutrient over-eaters. We eat food that may gratify us in the moment, but the second it slides down our gullet the shame and nagging disappointment quickly begin.
Look, I understand–it’s hard to eat well when we are busy wrapped in our lives, with training and work and school and everything else beckoning for our limited and prized attention.
But if you want to give your best at all those things, the simplest way to do so is to get control of your nutrition with a food journal.
A last word…
The temptation to under-report the bad stuff and over-report the good is gonna be strong.
Be honest with yourself—you’ve lied to yourself plenty over the years about your nutrition choices, give being honest a shot.
Your food journal will end up showing you that you can wield control over those cravings and experience the confidence and satisfaction that comes with eating properly and get all the performance benefits along with it.
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