How to use a food journal to reach your goals

Keeping a food journal can  help you take your results to the stratosphere. And the key to an effective food journal is to create one that works for you, and this post is going to show you how.

Before I get into the details of why, let me share the result of an interesting study with you:

A study on over 1,600 dieters that was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that those who kept a food diary for six days in the week lost twice as much weight as those who did it for only one day a week ~ via WebMD

Now let’s dive into how keeping a food journal can potentially help you lose twice as much weight as you are losing now.

Let’s start with why it’s an awesome idea to keep a food journal

It helps you understand your current habits

You can’t change what you don’t know and keeping a food journal can give you the hard data you need to understand the eating habits that are holding you back. Think of it as your habit identification ninja. 

It also helps you understand the behaviors that drive your habits

Habits only become habits after you have done them a good number of times.

You only do things that make you feel good and keeping your food journal can help you understand how eating a certain foods or eating at certain times makes you feel good so that you can find an alternative feel-good method if you choose.

For example:

  • If you find that you eat a chocolate bar at 3:00 pm everyday (habit), you might also find that this happens after you’ve spent hours grinding away at your work without a break
  • The behavior is really a need to take a break from your work. And once you understand this as the reason behind the 3:00 pm chocolate habit, you can decide to find other ways to get that break that doesn’t involve chocolate

Later in this post, you will learn how to design your food journal to identify these types of behaviors.

Finally it can help guide the changes you make and help you see your progress

Your food journal can help you identify the easiest changes to make. I always start with these types of changes when I work with clients one-on-one because they’re confidence builders that gear you up to tackle the harder stuff.

Having the data from the food journal will also help you see the progress you have made as you change. 

What you need to know to make a food journal work for you

Remember that it’s purpose is not to judge

Your food journal’s only purpose is to gather data on how you eat. It’s not there to judge you or say you had a “good diet day” or a “bad diet day.” It’s just there to tell you exactly what you ate so that you can use that data to create the change you want to see in how your body looks and feels.

We all struggle with it. I honestly have the hardest time writing down when I eat a slice of cheesecake after having four slices of pizza, but not writing that data doesn’t help. I have remind myself that it’s not there to judge me, but to help make it easier for me to eat healthier.

Remember that it’s there as a data holder and remember that you’ll turn the data it contains into information to help you eat healthier and feel better in your body. So write down the food you eat everyday regardless of if you eat too much food, too little food, too much sugar, or too few vegetables.

You can make it whatever you want

What you choose for a food journal is totally up to you. It is your journal and it is your process, so it’s a great idea to choose what works for you.

For example, I started out using a notebook, but I never went back to look through it. And since that defeated the purpose, I decided to try spreadsheets. That got boring after eight days max. Then I realized, “EJ, you are a visual person. Why not use a visual tool.”

I eventually settled on using the same tool I use to manage my business tasks and my one-on-one client’s lifestyle. It’s called dapulse, and you can read more about how I use it here.

Here’s the data to collect in your food journal

Below are some of the data you can collect and the behavior that it helps you hack.

Data: What you ate

Behavior: The types of food you choose most of the time

This is a description of what you eat. Since it’s your journal, focus on being specific enough for you to know what you are talking about when you come back to review.

You might find that you choose certain types of food over others. For example, you might like rice a lot, and you never eat potatoes. Or you tend to go for stir fries over soups.

Knowing the food you like can cut the amount of time you spend learning about making your meals healthier because you can focus on the foods you love.

Data: What time you ate

Behavior: Do you eat out of habit? Do you eat the same time each day or do you vary?

Eating at the same time each day might be a sign that you’re eating by the clock rather than paying attention to your hunger signals.

Data: How you felt before eating

Behavior: Are you eating to deal with the emotions you felt before reaching for food?

While the purpose of food is to fuel your body, it does serve an emotional purpose for all of us. It doesn’t help that it is marketed that way; for instance “chocolate and love” are always put together.

Including this information as part of your journal an help you identify the emotions that you are more likely to eat through. Knowing this can help you come up with better ways to deal with these emotions.

Data: Whether you overate

Habit: Do you clean your plate? Do you always go for more food?

This can be set up as a simple yes or no question. Answering yes more than no can help you figure out whether that this might be a reason that you are not seeing the results you want.

Data: Number of servings in each food type

Habit: Do you eat too much of one food type or too little of another type of another?

This get’s into a bit more detail and is where things start getting complicated for most of us. But breaking each meal down into it’s groups i.e. Carbohydrates, protein, dairy etc. can help you identify if you are partial to one food group or another.

This information can help you pick the right diet if you choose to go on one. For example, if you find that you choose a lot of carbohydrates, a low-carbohydrate diet might be a bad fit for you, but a diet that allows you to eat your carbs in moderation while helping you define what moderation is might work perfectly.

How to use the data you gather to eat healthier and lose weight

Now that you know why it is a great habit to keep a food journal and the information you can put in it, here are some tips on how to use the data you gather to help you lose weight.

Journal for enough time to identify a pattern

It takes more than looking at one day of eating to find a pattern in how you eat. You don’t have to do like I do and do it consistently regardless of what’s going on, but go for at least 7 days to get an idea of what your eating habits are.

With a 7-day food journal, you will have data on what you do during the week and on weekends. This can also help you see if your eating changes from one setting to the other i.e. from the office to your regular weekend hangouts.

Go through your journal and identify these patterns

It is not enough just to gather the data, you have to use it to identify the patterns. Set aside some time a day or two after the last day you journal to go through and use the habit/behavior spotting notes that I shared above.

Set up a list of experiments to play with

Based on your findings, you can set up a list of experiments to change your eating patterns. For instance if you identified that you eat with the clock, you can set a goal to eat at a different time each day for a week and make a note of how you feel each day and at the end of the experiment.

Another fun experiment would be to wait 10 minutes when you feel the urge to eat. The 10 minutes can be spent taking a walk around the block to distract you while you decide if you are hungry or if you just want to eat because it’s the right time.

Pick one experiment and be patient with yourself

Do not tackle all your experiments at once. In fact, pick just one and run with it. I also suggest that you pick the simplest one to help you build the confidence to go for the tough ones.

Consistent action with the simple experiments will give you the confidence to take action on the harder experiments.

Being patient with yourself during this process is crucial because it’ll also help you observe how you are reacting and your reactions to your experiments can be a source of new ones. Doesn’t it sound like so much fun?!

It’s time to take action…

Now that you know what a food journal can do for you, take the time today to pick the data you want to collect and why. That’s all!

Your next steps after that might be to find a format for journaling that works for you and actually keep your food journal.

As always, you know I love to hear from you. So please leave a comment and let me know what you came up with.

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