This month I tried is fast becoming the catalyst to force me out of comfort zones. I highly recommend you join along or make a point of setting your own monthly challenges! June at Nutreats was ‘You are what you eat’ month, so I set out to try to keep a food journal.
Why a Food Journal?
As we explored in What our diets say about us, what we choose to eat, how we eat, when we eat and why we eat reveals so much about our lives, our emotions, our stresses, our energy levels and so on. Very often you think you know what you’re eating and why you’re eating and have an overwhelming view that you are in control, when in fact you don’t and you’re not.
To me, keeping a Food Journal is an opportunity to take accountability for your diet and do a due diligence to ensure you are getting the nutrients your body needs to perform optimally and live your best life. Food journaling is different to food tracking.
Food tracking, made popular by some amazing apps focus heavily on calories. Although these have their place and have been valuable in teaching me about the nutritional breakdown of foods, I know that the way I want to live my life does not include working out if I can steal that nib of chocolate while Zissy is in the kitchen making a chocolate sauce.
Making a Food Journal Work for you
There is little point in keeping a food journal if you aren’t going to action the data. I chose to keep a food journal for just one week and I set out to look for a dietician that could analyse the week with me (after the fact).
It was important to find a dietician that shared my views on eating. I was looking for balance, not obsession and Julie Perks caught my attention.
Julie is a Registered Dietitian with extensive public and private sector experience. She is a specialist in the field of nutrition and aims to assist all with their health and nutritional goals. She qualified in 2007 from UKZN with a BSc Dietetics and a PG Dip Dietetics and has been registered with the HPCSA as a qualified dietitian since 2008. She is currently the chairperson of ADSA (Association of Dietetics South Africa) and consults individuals for a wide variety of nutritional needs from her practice based in Musgrave, Durban. Julie has a special interest in chronic diseases of lifestyle, weight loss management, goal weight maintenance, sports nutrition and children’s unique dietary requirements. Her eating strategies are designed to assist both desk-job and on-the-go people, ultimately ensuring that optimal health and nutrition is achieved.
It was clear that she was perfect for the task, so I set out to get very honest about everything I ingested.
“I am thrilled you eat a lot of vegetables at lunch and dinner as well as sufficient fruit in the morning. Perhaps packing fruit or making it more accessible in the afternoons when you’re peckish might be an option for you. Like with anything preparation is key – so having healthy snacks and foods in the fridge/cupboard is essential for success.” JP
“You mentioned you make everything yourself, which is another way to ensure you know what is going into your food and subsequently into your body – more homemade food is always better as you can control the food preparation method and portion control.” JP
“I can see that you do have that afternoon slump which often is as a result of too little carbs at lunch or in some cases too much sugar will spike the insulin levels and cause more energy to be stored as fat and leave the body hungry and craving for more energy from a sugary (and quick to reach) source.” JP
“You choose healthy low GI starches at dinner and some lunches which are great for providing the body with slow release carbohydrates and energy. Just note, the sweet potato lunch has no protein, which can also leave you hungrier earlier, so add some tuna, chicken, lean beef or vegetarian strips to add more protein to lunch and this might cause you to be less likely to have a treat as an afternoon snack.” JP
“You mentioned you have 2 tsp of sugar in your coffee which in some cases might then be 4-6tsp per day (which in a month is 120 – 180 teaspoons, which is about 600 – 900grams per month!) Often a great way for people to change their energy intake and assist with weight control without making too drastic food changes. I try to recommend that people cut down to half of what they are currently having or just to reduce slightly and then keep going so they don’t notice too much of a taste change.” JP
“Your late night snack or dessert could be a concern if your weight was an issue – I find people often look for something sweet as matter of habit – which can be unlearnt behaviour when you don’t stock those items or replace them with something healthier like a piece of fruit, nuts or dried fruit etc. Also eating too early and going to bed later might make you hungry, so plan for a healthier snack as well in this case – other alternatives can be homemade popcorn or veggie chips as well.” JP
What I learned from Keeping a Food Journal
Julie’s analysis was not a surprise to me but it helped me to pick up habits and track patterns.
“Overall I think your diet is pretty balanced and you have plenty veg, fruit, wholegrains. It might be a bit high in sugar with the added sugars to coffee, tea and hot chocolate as well as the chocolate/treat snacks.”
Knowing you have too much sugar, not enough protein and afternoon slumps is one thing, but when you can track back your week and see that on a morning you had more protein you didn’t have snack cravings before lunch is powerful.
Want to give food journaling a try? Follow Julie’s tips first.
Julie’s Tips for Keeping a Food Journal and a Healthy Diet:
1. It is important to note that the information or feedback given is always person specific and the information/guidelines might be different from person to person. The above feedback was based on Feige and each food diary will be different. Goals are different, portion sizes will (and often should) be different etc. It is important not to look at a food journal from a healthy person as the gold standard and try to copy it.
2. Food journal needs to be detailed enough to give an imaginary “visual” representation of what was eaten so that we can calculate energy intake, macronutrient consumption and offer advice where needed.
3. I don’t like to calorie count and encourage my patients not to either. It is important to learn how to include all food groups into a day and create a meal plan that uses each food group in a balanced and healthy way with good food preparation methods. Learning about these portions and what constitutes a healthy diet is often easier when it is explained by someone else, so I would advise seeking the advice of a registered dietitian. Try finding out as much as you can about them first to see if they might be a good fit for you and your personality and your goals as we are all individuals after all.
4. In terms of managing your weight when you have someone else preparing your food or family gatherings – Always try to add as many vegetables on the plate as you can if the main meal is very high in saturated fats (e.g. cream/butter/animal fats). If they typically don’t provide salad/veg – offer to bring some along to contribute to the meal. If you know you’re out for a meal as well, it is best to try plan around it and have better control over the meals around that meal. For instance, if you’re going out to dinner, then have a healthier breakfast and lunch planned for that day so dinner doesn’t need to be a stressful event. Also, try bear in mind, if you are not eating out all the time and this isn’t a meal you would typically have – enjoy it and don’t stress over the meal. But when in doubt – add loads of vegetables or salad to your plate.
My Food Journal Toolbox
I didn’t want to use an app that focused on calorie counting or required you to input a recipe to track a meal so I used the basic note app on my phone.
If you want to be fancier and use an actual app, I’d recommend Bowelle, which I found this month. Despite it being an IBS Tracker, I think it’s perfect for this type of food journal. It gives you 4 keys areas to track; 1- How do you feel? 2- Any Bowel Movements, 3- What have you eaten (you can list, save items as “breakfast foods” etc. and take images) and 4 – How are your stress levels.
Looking back at all these points can help you to realise how your mood and stress affect what you eat and how what you eat affects both your body and your mood. Oh and best of all in line with budget month, it’s a free app too!
Feige is the co-founder of Nutreats. She likes to code things, design things, and all things beauty.