Studies suggest that by increasing awareness of what and how much you’re eating, a food journal is one of the best tools you can use to improve your diet and lose weight (if that's one of your goals).
When you keep a food journal, the goal is to write down everything you eat and drink each day. Depending on your preferences, you might choose to do this by keeping a hand-written diary on paper, a document on your computer, or a log you keep with help from a smartphone app.
Being both consistent and accurate are the keys to getting the most benefits from keeping a food journal. Let's look below at how this habit can help you become a healthier eater, plus tips for putting your journal to use.
Why Is Keeping a Food Journal Beneficial?
1. Helps You Understand Your Eating Patterns
The first step to modifying your diet is to become more aware of your current eating patterns.
You may think you already have a good handle on how well you eat, however many people are surprised to learn just how many calories they're consuming, as well as how many "junk foods" they're nibbling on," once they start keeping track of their intake more closely.
If you make an effort to write down everything you eat each day, your journal will reveal trends that can inform you how to make changes that will have the most impact. For example, you might learn that you’re someone who often eats while distracted, or who skips meals but then overeats later in the day. This can point out the need to slow down and eat more thoughtfully, or to eat at more regular intervals.
Until you’re aware of these types of habits, it can be difficult to break and then replace them.
Another helpful thing about food journals is that they help you connect the dots between foods you're eating and symptoms you’re experiencing, such as digestive issues or allergies. For instance, you may find that drinking alcohol interrupts your sleep, or that eating dairy leaves you feeling bloated.
2. Encourages You To Eat More Mindfully/Thoughtfully
Many people eat while in a rush, when distracted, and when they're not giving their full attention to eating because they are basically "on autopilot."
Mindful eating is the opposite of this: it involves eating slowly and without distraction. It also emphasizes the mental/emotional aspects of eating, since our feelings often influence what we choose to eat and how much.
The American Society for Nutrition explains that "mindfulness is a behavioral technique that can help us put our habits in perspective."
Being more mindful and aware also makes you more accountable. If you know that you're going to be recording your meals in your food journal, you're more likely to take the time to make wise food choices. You may also find it easier to pay attention to portion sizes and hunger cues when you record how much you eat and drink at each meal.
Feel like you could benefit by eating more mindfully? Consider answering these prompts in your food journal before you eat:
Is my current mood (bored, sad, tired) impacting my choices?
Am I eating due to boredom or routine, when I could be doing something else to keep myself busy?
Am I rushing through this meal, or savoring it and giving the experience my full attention?
Am I paying attention to how hungry I actually am, or simply eating everything that is in front of me?
Did I skip any meals today, and now I'm overly hungry?
If I'm eating because I'm stressed, is there another calming outlet that would be a good alternative?
3. Can Help You Lose Weight or Maintain A healthy Weight
If one of your goals is to lose weight, then keeping a journal can be a very effective strategy for tracking your calorie and nutrient intake. Both of these factors are important — since calories ultimately help determine if you lose or gain weight, while different nutrients impact your appetite.
A number of studies have found that when it comes to weight loss or healthy weight maintenance, “self-monitoring" one's diet is one of the most important keys to long-term success. Some research also suggests that people who want to lose weight who keep daily food journals tend to lose more weight compared to adults who don't journal.
This makes sense — considering that journaling creates accountability, encourages meal planning and preparation, improves mindfulness, and can be helpful for sticking to weight loss diets that require calculating nutrient intake (such as the ketogenic diet or “If It Fits Your Macros Diet”).
How To Do It
First, determine how you would like to keep track of your food intake, whether by writing a daily list on paper, using an app on your phone, or keeping track in an excel doc on your computer. Consider which approach will be easiest for you to maintain and allow for the most accuracy and consistency.
While any of these journaling methods can be effective, food journal phone apps may have some advantages; people often report that apps tend to be the easiest to stick with.
If you're not sure how to get started, consider trying popular apps such as Lose It! Or MyFitnessPal. Both include tons of information such as calories and other nutrients found in thousands of commonly eaten foods, making it simple to precisely track your meals.
What should you write in your food journal?
Ideally, make a strong effort to record every single thing you eat and drink each day. The more details the better.
Try journaling for at least 2-3 weeks to get a good idea of your dietary patterns. If you're having good results, keep going. If this feels too burdensome, try recording at least 3-4 days per week so you don't resort to old habits.
Here are tips for recording your meals in your journal:
To help you record portion sizes accurately, first, try weighing or measuring your food, then you can eyeball portions going forward.
Don't forget to include "hidden calories" like oils, butter, dressings, condiments, and beverages.
Record the time of day and which meal you're eating to help reveal patterns about how your appetite changes throughout the day.
Consider including other relevant info like your mood, energy, and who you are eating with, which can all significantly influence your choices.