Our relationship with food has changed. We spend less time buying it, less time preparing it and less time eating it. Why? There's a few reasons. Because we're busier than ever before. Because readily prepared food is easy to purchase and bring into our homes, and easy to get when away from home. Because food is ubiquitous--we're never more than a few minutes away from a snack or a soft drink. Now, food is our companion throughout the day, not just at meal times. So it's easy to see why health issues like obesity and type 2 diabetes are becoming more of a problem than they have been in the past, and why there is a less ritualised relationship with what we eat and drink.
But we're pushing back. Many are studying these changes and starting to see the long-term effects--which are physical and psychological. And many are recognizing these effects as unwelcome and taking action. But it isn't easy. With all the conflicting information available about food, the body and the mind, it's hard to know where to begin. "Should I count calories? Eat a high-fat diet? Go on a low-carb regime? Do intermittent fasting?"
What we eat, how we eat it, and the effect it has on us is a complex issue. But just because the issue is complex doesn't mean that our responses have to be.
A SIMPLE STEP
Wanting to eat better - in order to feel happier, be more energetic, and live longer - is an admirable aim. But where's the best place to start with such a goal? Hint: It's not to start making changes.
Before we start making dietary changes we need to get a clear picture of where we are right now. We need to find out what we eat, how we eat, when we eat, the state of our energy levels before and after food, and identify any triggers related to the presence, absence or consumption of foodstuffs. And we can do all of that using a food journal.
To start and maintain a food journal you don't need to spend any money. You don't need any expert help. And you don't even need to worry about being judged--you know that you don't have to show it to anyone or talk about it with anyone, right? All you need to do is decide what data you want to record, how you want to record it, and what you're going to do with it. But before you do that it's worth thinking about the point of a food journal. How will recording what you eat help? Here are a few examples:
- It will help identify if you feel more or less hungry during specific circumstances. Is there a connection between stress, eating habits and environmental cues? Do you tend to eat more when you are hungry or when you are just slightly hungry? How does skipping breakfast affect your energy and your appetite?
- It will help you identify cravings, and more importantly, figure out what triggers them.
- It will help you identify the foods that lead to overeating. Can you eat only a portion of ice cream? Only a single cookie? A single banana?
- It will help you figure out which foods fill you up and which foods make you want to eat more.
- It will help you identify constructive and destructive habits. Is breakfast a better meal for you than dinner? Do you eat better on workdays or at the weekend?
- It will help you identify links between consumption and energy levels. When are you buzzing? When do you need a boost?
All this information gives you a baseline. It helps you pick out patterns and figure out what you want to do more of, what you want to do less of, and what you want to try and maintain. It's the foundation stone upon which you can build.
So, you've decided to keep a food journal for a few weeks to assess where you are. But what do you put in it? Here are some ideas:
- When you eat/drink.
- What you eat/drink.
- Where and how you eat/drink.
- The quantity you eat/drink.
- Subjective energy levels before and after eating/drinking (low, medium, high?).
- Why you are eating in the first place (hungry, bored, upset, nervous?).
And here are some real-life examples from around the web:
The most important things, like when and what you eat, are the easiest to record. And the more accurately and honestly you record them, the greater the service you do for Future You. But also keep in mind that more subjective data, like mood and energy, can be just as important for understanding your habits and relationship with food. So if you can, spare the time to record that as well.
This is the fun part. How do you record the above? A pocket-sized notebook is simple and easy. Get a lined or squared one, put headings at the top of a page and record away. There are also a tremendous amount of specially designed notebooks which you could use, although these often include methods for recording goals and progress, for monitoring movement and mindset, and a host of other things. If you don't like the idea of carrying round a pad and a pen everywhere, you can always use your smartphone. Again, there are lots of apps (MyNetDiary, MyFitnessPal, Cronometer are popular) and they enable you to do pretty much the same thing. Another digital alternative is to use a basic "notes" program and record it on your phone. You could also try something more fancy--perhaps set up an Instagram account that only you can see and post updates there, or take pictures and email them to yourself with the relevant tags and information.
Whatever method you settle upon, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Choose the method that is most convenient for you. If it's easy to do, you're more likely to do it. If you find apps complicated, don't use them. If you think you'll always forget the notebook, use a digital alternative.
- Now-or-never. Record what/when/where/how/why you eat immediately after you're finished. If you leave it till the end of the day or till the next, not only are you less likely to do it, you're also more likely to forget to include transient but important information like your energy levels or feelings before and after your meal. But if you do miss a meal or a day, don't abandon it. Fill in the data as best you can and start recording again after the next meal.
- Don't see it as an obligation. When it seems tedious or tiresome or embarrassing, remind yourself that a food journal is not about judgement; it's about collecting useful information for the future.
- Set reminders. If your meal times are consistent set an alarm or alert to remind you to record pre- and post-meal. Or persuade another to be your reminder.
It won't take long for you to notice patterns and relationships between yourself, your food, and your environment. You'll begin to see familiar times, familiar foods, and consistent variations in emotions and energy. You'll begin to notice consumption patterns in a restaurant versus at home versus at work. You'll start to learn about yourself.
Once you've kept a food journal for a few weeks, and filled it out accurately and honestly, the next question is, "What do I do with this?" The answer is, "Examine it."
One of the simplest things to do is the "more-less" exercise. Identify all the foods you ate in that period and put them in one of two columns--the "I want to eat more of this" column or the "I want to eat less of this" column. Once you've done this you can begin to devise ways to eat more of what you want to eat and less of what you don't want to eat. Perhaps you want to eat fewer crackers and more fruit. So a simple action to help you do that is, instead of buying a pack of crackers when you do the weekly shop, purchase apples and bananas and eat them when previously you would've had crackers. Or, here's a simpler, personal example. I used to eat loads of milk chocolate. Every day. So I switched to dark chocolate. I still get my chocolate hit, but I consume less sugar, feel more satisfied, and don't end up binging.
Another thing you can do is consider your food timings. Are they consistent or all over the place? Do you always eat breakfast, sometimes eat it, or always skip it? Compare the times when you eat a good breakfast to the times when you ate no breakfast: do you feel more or less energised, more or less stressed, more or less hungry? Perhaps not eating till mid-morning will put you on less of an energy rollercoaster during a workday? Perhaps making sure you nail breakfast is the key to a good food day?
There are multiple things you can look for and compare and contrast, and it's mostly influenced by the quality of your recordings. Remember, the more you record, the more information there is to work with, extract insight from, and take action on.
Which is why food journals are so powerful. They tell you so much about yourself in exchange for such little time, money and effort. In fact, it's not unheard of for people to monitor what they eat and drink using a food journal and realize that all they need to do is make one or two small tweaks to bring about significant change.
For example, my friend wanted to reduce the amount of alcohol she drank every week. Like many of us, she likes a glass of wine after work. When I asked her how many glasses she was drinking each week, she said, "five or six". Skeptical, I persuaded her to take a napkin and write down everything she had drunk in the last seven days. Including weekends, she had had a total of eleven glasses of wine--double her original estimate. Since then, she has been keeping a food journal on-and-off and managed to half her alcohol consumption without any loss of pleasure or satisfaction.
Another example of the effectiveness of food journals: During my training season I usually do one or two high intensity workouts each week. One day, I realized that what I ate before these workouts had a big impact on how hard I could train. So I started recording the food type, quantity and timings, and how I felt during the sessions. After a few weeks and some experimentation I figured out that I perform much better when I eat an apple or banana three hours pre-workout and consume no liquids an hour and a half prior to a session.
THE HIDDEN BENEFIT
These results are obvious and tangible. But they're not the only benefit of keeping a food journal. Often, when I do a food journal I feel empowered.
We're often told that we need help from an outsider, that we'll be okay if we just buy this new thing or sign up for that new service. A food journal denies these claims and puts some power back in our own hands. It's an inexpensive, easy way to get the information we need to begin taking steps in the right direction. It's a simple tool that we control which puts us on the path to positive change.