Let’s say your doctor told you your cholesterol and triglyceride blood levels are high and your blood pressure is elevated so you should start to watch your diet. Or you always had 5 kilos extra and now you have decided to lose them for good. If you are not sure how and where to start, it would be a good idea to write down what you eat at least at the beginning of the process. Before you start to change your diet, a food diary for at least 7 days can give you a good inside on your eating habits and behaviors. If you are about to visit a nutritionist, your food diary will be an important part of the assessment and your treatment planning. This will help the expert to provide you with a meal plan that fits your needs and your lifestyle. You will often hear from trainers and read in fitness magazines about the importance of keeping a food diary. It might sound a little bit trivial, but it can be a great eye-opener. And don’t worry if you “accidentally forgot” to report those chips you had last Saturday, as nutritionists are very familiar with the fact most people tend to under-report the amount and type of food they eat.
So what are the benefits of a food diary and how it can help you with your diet?
1. You might find yourself surprised when you realize how much in fact you eat. We tend to eat while we watch TV or work or check our e-mails or simply while occupied with something else. When we write down every meal we had, we start to pay attention. So maybe you think you don’t eat too much bread or pasta, but your food records might show opposite. One cookie here, a few bites of chips or muffin there and with all other food you ate that day at 3 p.m., you already achieved your recommended daily calorie intake.
2. As soon as you start to record your meals and start to pay attention to food, you might already start to make better choices about portion sizes or food you will eat. As you become more aware of the food you eat, you instantly raise your awareness of what, how much, and why you are eating. A study from 2008 showed participants who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those participants who kept no food diary. So before you finish that bag of chips, you might stop and reconsider, because you simply do not want to record it in your diary.
3. If you would give your food diary to nutritionist, he/she would calculate approximately how many calories you ate per day. That is why it is very important to record the portion size you eat, otherwise, it would be very difficult to get the approximate number of calories (1 cookie, a cup of tomato soup, 2 bananas, 1 cup of noodles, etc). But you don’t have to be a nutritionist for calculating calories in foods eaten in a day: there are many online tools that can help you with the calculation. Also, with the help of the online tools and based on your height, weight, age, gender and physical activity you can easily determinate your optimal daily calorie intake. Calculating calorie intake could be an eye-opener, especially if you realize a great difference between recommended calorie intake and the number of calories you ate throughout the week. But even without the calorie count, a food journal itself can help you become more aware of your eating habits.
4. You also might find you don’t drink enough water. Juices (even those without added sugar), soda, beer, ice tea, all contain natural or added sugar which you might not actually need. Observational studies have shown that people who drink mostly water have a lower calorie intake per day simply because they drink water instead of other beverages. And you have probably heard sometimes people mistake thirst for hunger and eat even though they’re actually thirsty.
5. You have probably heard multiple times you should eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables (with emphasis on vegetables) a day. One serving is usually one piece of medium-sized fruit (one apple) and one serving of vegetable is usually 1/2 cup raw vegetables or 1 cup of leafy vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are sources of vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber (fiber intake is linked to lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and obesity) in our diet and don’t forget the phytochemicals present in fruits and veggies that function as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. So how much fruit and veggies do you consume per day?
6. If you suspect you might suffer from food allergy or food intolerance, a food diary can be a valuable tool to help you determinate which food cause you problems. The onset of food allergy symptoms is usually rapid, within minutes, following the ingestion of the offending food. Symptoms of a food allergy may include rash, diarrhea, cramping stomach pain, swelling of the airways etc., so people can easily connect eating certain food with allergy symptoms. But food intolerance can be tricky. Onset of food intolerance typically occurs several hours after ingesting the offending food and may persist for even 48 hours or longer. So when symptoms of food intolerance arrive (nausea, gas, cramps or bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, irritability, headaches…) people do not connect the onset of these symptoms with the food they ate. That is why a food diary can be very useful. The data in the diary can help to identify which type of food is causing the problems.
7. Some dietitians suggest to not just to track time, food and the amount of food/portion size, but also a degree of hunger and emotions before, during and after the meal. These information can reveal emotional triggers for eating habits. If you want to solve a problem, you first have to become aware of it. I think the expressions “comfort food” and “emotional eating” speak for themselves.
So writing down what you eat can help you realize where you can make improvements in your diet, the emotional triggers of your eating habits or even help you with some health issues. And with all this technology today, you won’t even need a pencil and paper. It is maybe a little bit time consuming, but the effort is worth it.