So, you’ve started a food journal—way to go! Over the past few weeks, you’ve logged everything you ate and recorded the time, dining situation, mood, calorie count and so on. But what’s next? By considering the following key points, learn how to interpret your journal and start implementing some serious changes for the better.
Maintaining a food journal is a smart way to monitor and control your eating habits. After doing so, you’ll discover patterns that explain why you eat the way you do. These patterns will help you determine the necessary lifestyle changes that must take place for you to make healthier food choices.
The key is looking for patterns and knowing what those patterns mean. Use the following list as a guide for interpreting your personal food diary.
1. Evaluate your hunger Level
Did you often feel ravenous at mealtime? If so, you may have waited too long before eating. If you weren’t hungry at all, you may simply be bored or stressed. Either way, neither sides of this equation are good.
Eat when you’re hungry: If you continue ignoring hunger signals, your body goes into survival mode, causing it to store fat rather than use it. Chronically undereating, or ignoring hunger signals, can lead to fat gain. Ask yourself, “If I was hungry an hour ago, why didn’t I eat?” If you felt you were “too busy,” it’s important to know that ignoring hunger signals makes you hungrier, which can lead to overeating at your next meal.
Make this change: Keep a small bag of nuts, granola or whole-grain crackers on hand at all times so you can snack healthfully when hungry. You can easily munch on something small like this when you’re at an informal work meeting, sitting at your desk or driving to an appointment.
Mindless eating: If you’re eating because of stress or boredom, you’re likely making unhealthy food choices that could lead to weight gain and sabotage your health goals. If your hunger level was low when you ate—anything from 1 to 5 on a 1 to 10 scale—you may be eating for the wrong reasons. This is your appetite speaking, which is the desire to eat a specific food, rather than feeling actual hunger, which is the biological response to replenish your body’s energy reserves.
Make this change: Before you eat, ask yourself: Am I really hungry? I always use Michael Pollan’s rule, which states if you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re probably not actually hungry. Having food just because you want it is OK in moderation. Otherwise, this way of eating can lead to an abundance of calories, fat, sugar and salt.
2. Consider your mood
Your mood dictates your food choices more often than you might think. Our mood can cause us to eat too much, not enough and make both good and poor food choices. Because of this, it’s an important aspect of your food diary to analyze.
Cranky and irritable: If you were cranky and irritable at mealtime, you may have waited too long to eat. Our bodies get stressed when we need to refuel (feeling hangry, anyone?). The longer you wait to eat, the more stressed your body gets.
Make this change: If you’re fine one minute, and all of a sudden feeling irritable or annoyed the next, consider that a hunger cue. You may also get a headache or feel nausea. Not everyone is alerted to their hunger by “feeling hungry.” When I learned this from a nutritionist, my life changed. Note that chronically feeling this way when hungry could be a sign of low blood sugar, which means you may need to eat more frequently throughout the day. Consult a nutritionist or your doctor if you think this is the case for you.
Stressed: What did you eat when you noted that you were feeling stressed? In many cases, you may have made a choice you wouldn’t otherwise such as a burger and fries or pizza and a large soda. When you’re stressed, your body craves an immediate “pick-me-up,” which often consists of sugar, fat and carbs.
Make this change: If you know you’re stressed, focus on eating more consciously and making the healthier choice. If you want to indulge, choose a small dessert (or a few chips if you prefer salty snacks) to go with your lunch.
3. Examine each dining situation
Where you’re dining and with whom can impact the amount of food you eat. If your journal reveals high calorie counts during these situations, seek changes.
Eating at a restaurant: We eat with our eyes first. We eat based on what everyone else is getting second. Knowing your friend is getting a burger acts as permission for you to do the same, even if you entered the restaurant knowing you wanted a salad.
Make this change: Make your food choice and put the menu down. When the server comes, order first, so you’re not tempted to order something unhealthy at the last minute.
Eating with friends: We consume 44 percent more food when eating with someone, or a group of people, rather than just ourselves, according to John M. de Castro’s Eating Behavior: Lessons from the Real World of Humans. He explains in his research paper, “This social effect appears to occur as a result of an increase in the duration of meals rather than an increase in the rate of intake at the meal.”
Make this change: Pay attention to your hunger cues. If you no longer feel hungry, stop nibbling. A helpful trick is to wad up your napkin and place it on top of your uneaten food or pour water on top of your plate. If there’s enough food left, package it up to go and place the container out of sight. If you’re in someone’s home, wash the plate off as soon as you’re full.
After making these changes, continue journaling for the next few weeks. Are the changes you’re trying to make sticking? If so, keep up the great work. If not, consider why your efforts aren’t working and how you can change them to be more effective.