Why Food Journals Don't Work - And why you should be using one anyway

 Learn to track your food in a way that leads to real and sustainable change. 

Learn to track your food in a way that leads to real and sustainable change. 

A 6 step guide to making your food journal actually work for your goals. 

By Andrew Leonard

Food journal. These two words make most people cringe. Who wants to keep track of their food? It takes time, effort, honesty, and it usually brings a bout of judgment.

I've got some news for you: Food journals don't work. Ok, let me back up for a second. Food journals CAN work. They're just often used in a way that is not effective and forever recording your food creates an issue. Who wants to spend the rest of their life recording their food intake? I know I don't.

Outside of the endlessness of this task, most food journals run into one major issue that garner them ineffective: People use food journals to track calories and nothing else. Let me expand.

The Deprivation Strategy

The track calories approach generally results in you "denying" yourself from food at a certain point. Who wants to feel deprived of good food all the time? While it is important to watch our calorie intake, I believe there's a better way that does not lead to an experience of deprivation. 

Pizza? Who Cares!

The quality of food is often not addressed. While calories are a piece of the equation, they are not everything! A 600 calorie meal of pizza and soda versus a 600 calorie meal of grilled salmon, roasted vegetables, and iced tea will make you feel and look very different over time. 

F$@& This.

This calorie driven approach does not result in any sustainable changes. Outside of "eating less", there is no long term behavior changes that occur. Once you've finally had enough of endless tracking, decide to throw in the towel, and put your food journal on the back burner: BAM! It's right back to the old habits.

The way most of us use a food journals has little long term effect on our lives.

What is the end game?

Now, I'm making an assumption that if you use a food journal (or have thought about it), you're looking to accomplish a few things:

  1. You want to lose some weight and have a body that you're proud of.

  2. You want the energy to live an amazing life and perform at your best.

  3. You want to have all of this forever, not just for a couple of months, a few weeks, or a handful of days.

I'll also assume, if you're here, you want to better yourself and you are cool with putting in the time to do so.

If this describes you, there's another approach to take that will get you all those things, lead to more effective results, and save you time in the long run.

In order for this approach to work, you first need to move food journals from the "lifestyle" category to the "tools" category.

When you rely on a journal as the only way to "fix" your eating, you'll forever have to use it as a crutch to monitor your eating habits.

If, however, you look at the food journal as a tool, it can be useful in getting you on the right path. The journal can be used to gather information; furthermore, to provide you with the ability to make behavioural adjustments that last.

So, let's break down this approach with a 6 step guide on how to use your food journals for REAL change and SUSTAINABLE results:

Step 1 - Collect useful data

Shift your mindset of what you're trying to accomplish by using a food journal. You want to use the journal to identify your food patterns and food habits. This means, not just tracking your food quantities, but also the time of day you ate, where you ate, and who you were with. Pretend you are a scientist in a lab collecting data. You will be using the data to uncover information. You are looking for trends and patterns. That's it!

Step 2 - Eat like normal

Once you have shifted your mindset about why you are using the journal, the next step is to do your best to eat like you normally eat!

Often, clients will use a food journal and automatically begin to make healthier choices they don't normally make. Now, this is normal human behavior and it is not necessarily a bad thing. This is actually part of the goal, to bring awareness around what you are doing.

The problem is once the food journal is ditched, it's open season on donuts and cake! The goal in using the journal for two weeks is to uncover what your normal, everyday food habits are.

Step 3 - Analyze your eating patterns

Once you have collected data for two weeks, it is time to analyze. We want to think like a scientist. This means, you're not allowed to judge yourself! We're only looking to identify useful data that we can use to practice real change.

Do you notice you are eating too late on weeknights? What can you adjust to change this? Do you go to the coffee shop and order a donut every morning? How can you change this habit? Do you tend to overindulge on weekends? Or with certain people you hang out with?

You want to USE the data to find out where you can improve long term.

 Get clear on your eating patterns, so you can practice new habits that align with your goals

Get clear on your eating patterns, so you can practice new habits that align with your goals

Step 4 - Practice a new habit

Now that you have analyzed your data and have spotted common trends, it's time to begin practicing new habits that will support your goals.

What behaviors do you want to change? Is there a structure you can create that will help you practice your new behaviors?

For some ideas on step 4, check out my blog post where I identify 6 of my own nutrition obstacles and create structures to change my behaviors.

Step 5 - Put the food journal away

Practice your new behaviors for a set time period. Do so without a food journal. The goal is to make these new behaviors habits, ones that don't require you to write down every single morsel of food you consume.

Once you feel like you've successfully implemented your changes, it's time to repeat the process!

Step 6 - Repeat the process a few times per year

There are two reasons you want to repeat the process a few times a year.

First, the food journal separates you from "how you think you're doing" to hard facts. Remember the scientist thing?

Often, you think you do better than you really do (I do this too). You might believe you're rocking your nutrition, but you go to record your food for two weeks and realize you have "forgotten" about the bagel for breakfast, the cookies your coworker brought after lunch, or the sugary pumpkin spice latte you had at 3PM to get through your last 2 hours of work.

As humans, we're not the most reliable when it comes to our own facts. We create our own perception of how things are versus how they really are. We block out what's convenient, over or under estimate to feel good, and focus on what we want to focus on. Use the journal as a fact checker!

The second reason you want to repeat the process a few times a year is there is always something to improve upon. Once you master new habits, take another unbiased look at what you can do even better! You can never stop growing, learning, and improving.

How often should I use a food journal?

Well, it's really up to you. Personally I recommend four separate times a year for a two week period. This gives you plenty of data to get an overall idea of your patterns and habits, while giving you enough time to practice new behaviors, and then see which ones have really sunk in, and which ones need to be revisited.

You don't need to record your food day in and day out forever. Instead of spending hours a week writing down everything you eat, use your newfound time to focus on practicing the new habits you are after. In another few months, start the process again to reassess how you're doing and shift new behaviors.

Remember, a food journal can be a great TOOL. It does not have to be a LIFESTYLE.

Are you ready to achieve amazing results?

This is the exact approach to nutrition coaching I take with my clients. For one year, I'll take you through a program designed around behavior-oriented goals that add up to some INCREDIBLE transformations. 

Here at Andrew Leonard Coaching, I partner with busy, everyday folks ready to make real, sustainable change in their nutrition & fitness practices. 

My program, powered by Precision Nutrition, is tailored for people with busy lives like you, because I know one important fact that most nutrition and fitness programs ignore: you've got a life outside of the gym.

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