By Michael Krueger
I can’t imagine how many times I have suggested to clients that they keep a food journal. I also can’t imagine how many times that suggestion has been greeted with an eye roll and an “I don’t think so” look.
This ubiquitous response doesn’t make the suggestion any less valid. It is a good idea to keep a food log, whether you are trying to lose weight or just trying to eat a more healthful diet.
So, what are the alternatives to the dreaded food journal?
Well, I’ve got one for you.
The Junk Journal
The Junk Journal is a simple alternative to the (I’ll admit) onerous requirements of a bona-fide food journal complete with calories and weights and measures. It has only two basic requirements, and neither is particularly tough to adhere to.
The first is to weigh yourself every day. It can be at any time you want but you need to be consistent (doing it twice, once in the morning and again at night is better, but once is enough). It’s best if you use a scale that will give you your body fat and hydration as well as your weight. This helps you to see the relationship between what you eat and how it affects your gross weight.
I know too many people who freak out over weight fluctuations when it’s simply water weight. A high-salt meal or a bunch of salty snacks can do a real number on your overall weight, while in reality it doesn’t mean much. Well, that’s not entirely true; it does mean that you are eating poorly, but we’ll get to that in a moment. A scale that tracks your hydration will lessen the anxiety of seemingly random multipound swings in your weight.
How accurate these scales are is an issue for some people, but it really doesn’t matter; all you’re looking for is consistency. They may be off by a few percentage points, but so long as you see your weight, body fat, and hydration going in the direction you desire, you are on track.
Get yourself a notebook. I prefer a notebook and pencil over a digital record simply because it’s always a good idea to be able to see your struggles and your triumphs laid out before you in your own handwriting. It personalizes it in a way that your phone can’t.
Let’s assume you are weighing yourself every morning. You’ll write down the date, your weight, your body fat, and your hydration. After that, you will simply go about your day. Have breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and whatever. Then, at the end of your day, you will add to your journal all the junk you ate. You don’t need to write down all the good foods, just the stuff that did not contribute to you goals, whatever they may be.
You may have eaten some potato chips; write it down. It’s not important how many you ate, just record that you ate them. You may have had some ice cream; write that down as well. It may help to just write down anything that you eat outside of a standard meal. I also record anytime I eat in a restaurant, because I tend to eat more than I normally would when I eat out. If your normal diet is really poor, you may want to write down when you eat a good snack like a piece of fruit. I did this for a while, and I wrote down the good stuff with a red pen; it made me feel good that I was making good choices. I don’t do that anymore, because it made the log more complicated than it needed to be and that was not what I was looking for.
The Next Step
So, now that you’re keeping a journal, what do you do with all the data? Well, that’s up to you. You may find that you are eating nothing but junk; that would be a bad thing, but at least now you know. Then again, you may find that for the most part you aren’t eating a lot of junk but on nights when you stay up late you tend to eat more, and it’s not good stuff. You may find that you eat the same snack foods every day or nearly every day. You can ask yourself why you do that. Is it because you are hungry, bored, or maybe just a creature of habit? Or maybe it’s a matter of opportunity: The food was available, so you ate it. There is a lot you can do with this information, and the longer you keep a log such as this, the more and better your data.
After a week or so, you’ll have an odd sort of journal. It will more than likely seem a little forced and stilted. You’ve probably included info that you didn’t need and left out stuff that would’ve been helpful. That’s OK; there’s a learning curve to keeping a journal, and yours will not look exactly like mine or anyone else’s, for that matter. You just need to trust that the data will prove to be helpful in the long run.
It’s hard to look at what you do from a bystander’s perspective, but that’s what’s required for this to work. Look at the foods you listed and think about why and when you ate what you ate. I’ll confess that if my wife buys Original Lay’s Potato Chips, I will eat them; if there are pretzels, I will eat them (my log proved this to me despite my firm believe that I was stronger than that!). If they aren’t in the house, I have no problem; I won’t seek them out. I also have a penchant for peanut butter–not a sandwich but straight from the jar, with a spoon. Fortunately, my wife doesn’t eat peanut butter, so it isn’t as disgusting as it might sound. Peanut butter isn’t the worse thing for me to eat, but when consumed in excess it’s a problem, so it gets listed as junk. I like nuts (almonds, walnuts, and cashews, to be specific), and they tend to be my go-to snack. Nuts are OK, just like peanut butter, but they are high in calories, so I have to limit myself; and since I often don’t, they go in the junk journal too.
I’ve also found that if I don’t eat a sit-down type of meal in the evening, I’ll snack all night. If I don’t put a finite amount of food on a plate, it’s like I can’t figure out when I’m done eating. Popcorn is another thing I will gravitate to, particularly if I’m watching an old movie on Netflix. So, by keeping a junk log, I also learned that watching an old movie is a trigger for me to snack. I could do worse than popcorn, but it’s a nonessential food, and when I add some butter and salt … well, it goes in the junk log.
You can learn a lot about what you eat, how you eat, and when you eat by keeping a simple junk log. By teaming it up with a daily weigh-in, you will be able to correlate your food intake with your scale weight, body fat, and hydration. With this knowledge, you will be able to take control of your diet and learn to feed yourself with good-quality foods that will enhance your performance and improve your health and fitness.
You will also learn what foods you’re simply not willing to give up, even if they aren’t all that good for you. Understanding this will allow you to occasionally indulge without feeling guilty or sabotaging your long-term goals. It’s great to know that you can have that (small) bowl of ice cream and it won’t hurt your long-term goals, and it’s also a good feeling to know that you have the power to decide when (and if) you’ll eat it.
So, learn the “what’s, when’s, and why’s” of your eating habits and you will, over time, gain control of your diet …
and then, your diet will no longer control you.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.