I can still vividly remember the days I used to keep a detailed food journal. You might also call it a “diet diary,” considering I was fully entrenched in diet and fitness culture at the time. It was a pocket sized notebook I’d carry in my backpack or purse and I used it diligently to track every morsel that crossed my lips. This was before all the digital apps like MyFitnesspal became popular. I used this from my late teens to my early 20’s when I was in the throes of my disordered eating. I remember justifying that, “writing it down” made me more accountable to sticking to my restrictive eating regimens. It provided a false sense of safety that I was “on track.” Ultimately, a binge would result from my fanatical behaviors with food and I’d be forced to confess my sins within the pages of my food diary. I’d then stare at the pages and agonize over my wrongdoing, drowning in shame, followed by yet another of cycle of restriction and binging.
That was almost a decade ago. Fast forward through my healing journey and I’m now a dietitian fully embracing the Intuitive Eating framework and Health at Every Size paradigm. My mission is to help every client I serve break free from diet culture.
“Should I Keep A Food Journal?”
I’m commonly asked by clients whether they should be keeping a food journal (I no longer refer to it as a diet diary for obvious reasons). The answer to the question is highly variable depending on the person and their history. While I don’t think a food journal serves a person well when used as a means to patrol, police, count or restrict food intake, it can be a beneficial tool in the early stages of intuitive and mindful eating practices.
I want to emphasize that this article is NOT highlighting the Pros/Cons of a using a food journal as a weight loss tool. I utilize the food journal in practice with clients who are working to break free from diet culture and disordered eating and DO NOT recommend a food journal as a weight loss tool. The goal of this article is to illustrate how this tool might help you throughout your Intuitive Eating (IE) journey, while also presenting some warning signs that keeping a journal might be harming you. Keep reading to learn if keeping a food journal is a productive tool for your unique situation. Remember to always first discuss with your dietitian, therapist or doctor!
What is a Food Journal?
Before going through the pros/cons of keeping a food journal, I thought it would be important to explain what it is and how it works. Basically, the journal can be as simple as a small notebook, or if you’re working with a dietitian or therapist, they may have a special set of worksheets you use as your food journal. I use a custom food journal template that I provide to clients when working together.
Below are the most important things to record in the journal:
- Time of meal or snack
- Hunger level before & after eating
- What food was eaten (meals, snacks, beverages)
- It’s not important to record portion sizes (I don’t have clients measure their food), but if I client wants to provide an estimate, they can.
- Emotions/Mood before and after eating
- Any physical sensations including pain, discomfort, pleasant fullness, increased energy, lethargy, etc.
Pros of Keeping a Food Journal
#1: Increases awareness of hunger & fullness cues
In the early stages of the IE process, many clients report struggling to connect with their internal hunger and fullness cues. This is especially the case if you come from a history of disordered eating, restriction, binging, chronic yoyo dieting or skipping meals. When there is a history of reliance on external cues for eating (a.k.a. diets), it can take some time to re-learn and tune into the messages the body sends us about our appetite. Not only can the signals of hunger and fullness be difficult to identify, but many clients hesitate to trust those signals.
When keeping a food journal, you’ll rate your level of hunger and fullness using The Hunger Scale (Scale of 1-10, with 1 being empty, 5 neutral and 10 uncomfortably full). It can be helpful to do this rating before and after a meal or snack. Principles 3 and 5 of IE are “Honor Your Hunger” and “Respect Your Fullness.” The food journal can be a great way to practice these two principles as you learn how to connect to the physical sensations of hunger and fullness.
Over time, through observation (sans judgement), you begin to learn what feels good in your body. For example, you identify a meal and snack pattern that promotes energy and feels good physically. You discover that eating an afternoon snack keeps you from reaching empty on the hunger scale so you get to the dinner table with an appetite, but aren’t starving. There might also be times when you wait too long to eat and when you finally have access to food, you eat to a level that feels uncomfortable or perhaps you feel that you didn’t even taste the food. These are just a few examples of insight you gain when using a food journal to reconnect to your internal wisdom.
When I’m working with a client who is using a food journal, we take some time during each session to review challenging meals or positive insights gained between visits. They might share notes from a particular meal (positive or negative) and we use the experience to build upon the IE and mindfulness skills they are working towards. Each time you eat, there is opportunity to learn, grow and evolve in your IE journey.
#2: Helps identify old diet culture thought patterns that influence food choices
By using the food journal to record food and mood, we gain valuable information about negative thought patterns and cognitive distortions that are often ingrained in your psyche as a result of diet culture. In sessions, I help clients practice challenging harmful thoughts and brainstorm effective ways to reframe them.
This is a great way to practice Rejecting the Diet Mentality (Principle 1) while also Challenging the Food Police (Principle 4). In the journal, I encourage clients to take note of any common diet habits or thoughts that creep in during meals, including:
- Questioning what you’re “allowed” or “deserve” to eat based on what you’ve already eaten that day or if you’ve exercised.
- Only allowing yourself to eat a specific times regardless of if you feel hungry.
- “Suppressing” hunger with coffee or diet soda.
- “You can’t eat waffles at brunch because they have too much carbs and sugar, you’ll gain weight.”
- “Bread is fattening.”
- “I can’t eat dessert because I didn’t exercise.”
By taking the time to identify those critical voices and habits, we can come up with ways to confront them. This arms you with techniques to dispute the Food Police or disordered eating thoughts in the future.
#3: Helps identify the use of food as a coping mechanism
When you begin writing down your food choices along with associated emotions and physical body sensations, you start to discover patterns of turning to food to cope with difficult situations. First off, this isn’t a BAD thing, it’s simply something to observe and take note of. As humans, we ALL eat “emotionally” from time to time.
Food is soothing and when we eat, neurotransmitters that make us feel good are released in the brain. If food and eating didn’t feel pleasurable in our brain, there would be nothing reinforcing our drive to eat and we wouldn’t survive. Make sense? It can be helpful to reframe the guilt surrounding comfort eating so you are able to move forward with grace and self-compassion.
There are times when we identify that food has become the primary coping mechanism for a client. Again, no shame, blame or guilt here… simply an observation. If this is something you identify while using a food journal, it can be helpful to work in conjunction with a therapist and dietitian to discover new skills to help you cope with difficult emotions. Part of that process involves looking at what needs in your life are going unmet, causing you to turn to food.
Cons of keeping a food journal
#1: It can be a source of added stress
Recovering from diet culture, disordered eating, yoyo dieting and the like is heavy work. During this time you may be working with several different practitioners and it can be overwhelming at times. If keeping a food journal is causing added stress, then I always have clients discontinue.
The Food Journal isn’t required to heal your relationship with food and body, it’s only one tool. There are many other tools in the box we can utilize to help you on the journey. Some clients may have a positive experience with it, while for others it reminds them of their dieting and disordered days. If this is the case for you, we’ll find other ways to learn and grow in recovery.
May lead to feelings of guilt or shame
Simply writing down what you’re eating can be triggering for many people. Throughout the IE journey, people are encouraged to make peace with food and give themselves unconditional permission to eat. This is challenging for the chronic dieter who typically uses external rules to tell them what to eat. When challenging these “forbidden” foods, food journaling may feel uncomfortable and anxious about the experience of “breaking a food rule.”
Depending on where you are on your individual IE experience, the idea of “breaking” old food rules can feel scary and may hold you back from continuing to challenge those previously “forbidden” foods. Furthermore, the written record of the food, may tempt some to fall into old disordered behaviors such as compensation (Example: I ate a brownie last night, which means I must run an extra mile today).
If you notice that journaling fear foods increases anxiety and decreases desire to continue experimenting with new foods, then this is a good sign that using a food journal is not helpful for you. Your dietitian and/or therapist will be able to find other tools to support you in making peace with food and breaking free from the diet mentality.
#3: May have potential to influence food choices in a way that slows progress with intuitive eating
Similar to #2, some clients may find that they slip back into disordered behaviors with their eating when they are using a food journal. Simply writing down what has been consumed may set off “diet” alarm bells that you can’t be trusted with food and food police may convince you to start restricting or avoiding food again.
Another potential outcome is increased black and white thinking (all or nothing), a common cognitive distortion individuals experience when struggling with disordered eating. For example, maybe you recorded a food challenge such as having pasta for dinner. Since this challenge violates old food rules, some people may feel like they’ve “blown” it, so they might as well go ahead and binge.
If you’ve experienced a scenario similar to the one described above, keeping a journal is likely triggering food police thoughts. These thoughts impact food choices in a negative way because they prevent you from tuning into your body, hunger, preferences and cravings. As a result, you may start to shy away from new food experiences and fall back into to old food rules. If this is the case for you, using a food journal is likely not a helpful tool for you.
I hope the above highlight of Pros and Cons has offered some insight into how a Food Journal may or may not serve your recovery from diet culture. Just a reminder that if you decide to use a food journal, discuss with your dietitian or therapist first to make sure it’s a good choice for you.
A food journal is one of many tools that can be used in nutrition therapy. It is not meant to be used as a long-term or life-long tool. Clients often find it helpful in the early stages and as they build trust and confidence with eating, they are able to discontinue the use of the journal. Use the infographic below as quick reference!