Food journals are the tools of serious health professionals around the globe. They're easy to maintain, easy to analyze and easier than ever to start. The App Store currently lists more than 40 different food journal apps alone, ranging from fast food specific calorie counters to complete lifestyle changing software. Calorie Counter by MyNetDiary, for instance, is a free App Store application that makes keeping a food journal incredibly easy and fast with its huge database of foods and meals. It includes daily breakdowns of dietary intakes, gives exercise tips, creates charts and - the eVitamins favorite feature - allows users to input and track all of their vitamins and supplements. Short of building a visual, daily food pyramid to show you what you've been eating, there's not much this app doesn't do.
But the success of food journals doesn't depend completely on modern technology. Food journals have been around long before touch screens, and there's no shame in using a yellow legal pad or a pocket notebook to keep track of the things you're putting in your body - in fact, some people prefer the freedom and privacy. As long as your food journal is used habitually and honestly, and as long as you're keeping track of the right things, there's no reason why a food journal can't be written out in cursive or chicken scratch. Here's a few pointers to help get you started.
Estimate the size, volume, weight and/or the quantity of the foods you eat. Obviously half of a hamburger has less calories than a whole hamburger, but less obvious are variances in sides, extras and serving sizes. For example, trying to measure the amount of salad you ate in terms of "half" or "whole" is completely dependent on the serving size of the meal itself. Use actual numbers when you can, and try to use measurements that you know and recognize easiest. It may not be in your second nature to know the exact weight of the cucumber you just ate, but writing down that you ate about 3" or six slices is better than no using measurement figure at all.
Don't Forget the Little Guys
Unless you're eating purely raw foods, chances are you're using condiments, garnishes, glazes, dressings and other little guys in every meal. Don't forget about these items when you're updating your journal. One serving (two tablespoons - remember, use numbers that you understand) of Kraft ranch dressing has about 150 calories, and that needs to be written down in addition to the meal itself. Did you sprinkle croutons or cheese on that salad? Write it down.
And don't think that all of these little guys are bad either; a salad can come with carrots and tomatoes in it too, after all. Just try to be as complete as possible when you're taking it all down, and always look for ways to improve the little guys in your life. Writing it down will make it easier to see where you can cut back on calories and will help you think about using margarine instead of butter or oil and vinegar instead of salad dressing.
Time and Length of the Meal
Don't forget to make a note of the time you ate and the time it took you to finish. You've heard that eating slower actually makes you feel fuller and this is where you'll see the proof. Treat your meals like you would treat your workouts, establish a base and work from there. If you know that you're eating your lunch in 15 minutes but that it's also a disproportionate size meal given the time of day, then try to slow your meal time down a few minutes. The extra time could translate directly into calories saved and writing it down makes it easy to see.
The time of day is important as well and it should be noted too. Your body will metabolize foods faster when you've been up and active for a few hours, so it makes sense that meals eaten within the first ten minutes of waking up should keep you feeling fuller longer than the same meal eaten at 6 p.m. Again, just writing all of the data down makes these variables easier to track and tweak.
Detail the Scene
Did you eat your lunch on a park bench or in the break room? Was it relaxed or rushed? Were you on a date at the time? Who were you with?
These are details that matter in a food journal because, even if it's subconscious, the environment is a factor that can change the way you eat and the foods that you eat. Nobody goes to a first date and asks for the fattiest, greasiest item on the menu, but that's pretty much the only way guys will eat on football Sundays during the season. Detailing the scene around you helps flesh these variables out and lets you know that going to the seafood buffet with your buddy might not be the best way to stick to your diet.
Social or Solitary?
Eating with different people will easily affect the way you eat, as will eating all by yourself. It's completely normal to want to get some alone time while you eat your meals but don't let yourself get sloppy. People who eat mostly by themselves tend to eat like nobody is watching, and thus have no real accountability other than to themselves. Eating in company can offer a subtle reminder that it's not proper to eat an entire large pizza in one sitting, or that an 18-inch sub is meant to be shared.
What Else Is Happening?
Sometimes other things will affect your meal too. A crying baby is going to instinctively make you want to eat faster but pleasant conversation will slow things down a bit too. Watching TV, reading, music, people watching - these are all variables that need to be noted. Eating lunch with a loquacious coworker at the table next to you can really damper your whole lunch, but then again so could complete silence. Mealtime Zen depends on your own personal preferences and noting the events around you in your food journal will help you see what conditions you're drawn toward.
How's Your Mood?
Among the most important items worth noting in your food journal is your mealtime mood. Were you contented, frustrated, lonely or elated? Did you start the meal one way and change halfway through? What do you think made you feel the way you did?
Comfort foods are called that because they're comforting to eat, and if you're feeling down then you might find yourself eating the same foods time and time again. Being mindful of your mood will help point out the foods and meals that you revert to when you want a little TLC. Sometimes these foods aren't all that bad - and it's ok to spoil yourself occasionally - but too much of anything is never a good thing. Keep an eye on the foods that you're eating when you feel your worst and the ones you eat when you feel your best, you may be surprised to see that there's some overlap.
Hints For More Accurate Food Journal Entries
When working on a food journal, it’s important to maintain your usual habits throughout, unless otherwise instructed by a doctor or nutritionist. Even as you become more conscious of your habits, it’s important to follow through with them in order to really see how certain behaviors can turn out to be helping or hindering your goals.
To that end, it’s also important to record everything consumed on all of the days that the food journal is being kept. Writing down meals and snacks as they’re being eaten makes it much easier to remember even the smallest snacks. Doing a total recall at the end of the day is far more difficult and is likely to be far less accurate, which is why it’s essential to keep your food journal on hand at all times. Just remember that it's most important to be truthful and accurate in your food journal. Even if the journal is for your own peace of mind, blanks, gaps and lies are only going to hurt your progress.