It’s 5am, and you are standing in the light of your fridge, with a ladle in the Nutella jar, greedily chomping down any hope that you were going to eat well that day.
“Maybe tomorrow will be the day I lock down my nutrition,” you tell yourself.
“There, there—of course tomorrow will be the day,” the not-so-helpful you replies, the ladle craning towards your mouth, brimming with that sweet, sweet hazelnut spread.
If this feels familiar (and lawd knows it does for me), you aren’t alone.
We all struggle mightily with our nutrition at one point. Or many points. Or all the fuckin’ time.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. And before you laugh and shuffle off to another one of the 7 tabs you have open, you should consider starting a food diary.
Maybe you’ve thought about writing your food before.
Then you were like, “Nah, I ain’t got time for that.”
Or you snickered at the idea of keeping a “food diary.”
Sounds kinda prissy, right?
But really, put aside giving a baker’s hoot what others may or may not think for a moment.
If you want to feel metric butt-ton better, have higher and more consistent energy levels over the course of the day, and you know, beast at a 20% harder rate*, then start putting pen to paper and unleash this certified and proven weapon for kicking names and taking ass—err—in the kitchen.
* Anecdotal approximation. See a doctor if it lasts longer than 4 hours.
Here’s how a food journal will help you open a can of whoop-ass in the gym and in life:
- It starts out by throat-punching your incessant and corrupting streaks of denial.
We are creatures of denial. You are probably sitting there denying that very statement. And that one too. But it’s true.
We utterly stink at guesstimating and evaluating most things when left to our own devices.
Research at Cornell found that we will gleefully and consistently lowball the caloric intake of fast food, fueling our justifications for satisfying those gnarly cravings. We are no better when it comes to eating well–we think back to that one great and healthy meal and use that as a prop for eating a large pepperoni pizza in one sitting.
The reality is we don’t eat nearly as awesome as we think.
I can count how many times an athlete came back to me with a week’s worth of journaled meals and found they were eating more greens than they thought. (How many? A goose egg, in case you were wondering.)
Writing out your meals and what you are actually eating—and not what you are border-line making up in your creative imaginations of the past—puts a lid on the bubbling cauldron of denial running rampant across your brain.
- It forces us to be accountable to, uh, us.
Something funny happens when you start writing out your meals. Or rather, when you know that you are going to be writing out your meals. It gives you pause, a sense of accountability that wasn’t there before.
Writing your meals down takes them out of the abstract and into reality. There’s no glossing over it when you have it on paper in front of you.
The inventory of your meals serves as a backstop, a voice of reason that helps combat the completely nonsensical whims of your cravings.
All too often we end up eating what we wanna eat, when we wanna eat it, succumbing to cravings and convenience instead of eating according to what will actually benefit us.
Knowing you have to record that extra helping of pie can often be just the thing you need to stop short of eating it.
- It flat-out works.
One of the coolest aspects of writing out your food is that it can be tailored to match and encourage your goals and aspirations, whether it is having more energy, feeling healthier, getting jacked, or getting more M&M’s in your life.
Here’s what I mean:
- Want to get bigger? A food journal helps you manage the number of calories you need to eat day so that you stay on target.
- Want to lose some weight? Use the pages of your food journal to track what you are eating. (A study of 1,700 participants found that the rate of weight lost was double when they used some form of food journal.)
- Want to eat exactly 44 brown peanut putter M&M’s each day? Tally ‘em up in your day-to-day log of what you are crushing in the kitchen. And no, I am not judging you. Not really, at least.
- Want to see if you have one of those food sensitivities you keep hearing about? A food journal will help you connect the dots with what is happening in the kitchen and the ensuing carnage going down in the bathroom.
What gets measured gets managed. It’s about as simple as that.
Best Practices: Food Journaling 9000
Okie dokie, Smokie—so you’re feeling a little pumped on the benefits of writing out your meals.
Before you go running off to one of the app stores to buy yourself a food tracker app, or stealing some blank paper out of the office printer to start writing out your meals, here are some tips for making the most of this tool.
- Write out what you were doing when eating.
It might come as a farm-to-table surprise to you that you don’t always eat when you are hungry.
Sometimes it’s because we are pissed off about something. (“I’ll show that Twinkie what time it is!”) Or we stuff our faces because we are bored. Or even because there is a bowl of chips sitting there right in front of us and it would basically be rude not to cram a few chips in our mouth-hole.
Mindless eating happens a lot, and one of the ways to get a grip on it is writing out our meals, yes, but also noting where we were and what we were doing when we put fork to mouth.
- Don’t wait to write it all out.
Our brain cannot be trusted (remember, denial?), much less our short term memory.
I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday. It probably had sriracha on it, but that’s all I can truly remember, much less portion sizes or macros.
Track your meals as soon as you can after eating them. Accuracy matters.
- Stick to the basics.
Going overboard with details is common. Dial it back down and stick to the basics—it makes journaling your food a much more sustainable habit to make stick.
Macros, water and portion sizes are a good start.
- Use it to plan your meals.
I’m a huge fan of meal prepping. The main reason for my fanboyism is that it takes all the stress out of deciding what to eat.
You make a bunch of meals, and then you eat them. No debate, no texts with the girlfriend—“What are we eating tonight?”—just prep, nuke, and eat.
Your food journal can be used to plan and prep upcoming meals, so that you can brush off the stress that comes with trying to decide on something healthy to eat.
- Especially journal out your problem meal.
As discussed, the food journal can be deployed as an accountability tool—which is especially important with that one meal of the day where we experience epic levels of grand fuckery.
For me, it’s always been dinner. I’m tired, running on fumes, and the last thing I want to do is put together a healthy meal from scratch.
Whatever your worst meal of the day usually is, give it extra attention and TLC. Once you conquer it, the rest of your meals will feel like a breeze to manage.
The Next Step:
Okay, okay, so by now we’ve had some laughs. We’ve bonded over M&M’s. We’ve learned that maybe—just maybbeeee—we aren’t so hot at being honest about what we eat.
Start by writing out your meals for a few days. Target those problem meals. Go into just enough detail so that you stick with it. And come out of it eating better, feeling better, and maybe even smelling better.**
** No promises, stinky.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
This article was written in part by Olivier Poirier-Leroy, an entrepreneur and former national level athlete who writes about working out and stuff over at YourWorkoutBook.com.