13 tips for keeping a detailed food journal to identify allergies, make balanced choices, and eat mindfully

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  • Food journals can provide deeper insight into your eating habits and help you lose weight safely.
  • You can also pinpoint stress eating and food intolerances by logging emotions and physical symptoms.
  • Writing down everything you eat and drink for 1-2 weeks can help unwanted patterns stand out.

Can you remember what you ate last night? How about last Tuesday? What about how the food you ate made you feel?

For instance, you might feel energized and satisfied after eating a meal packed with protein, whole grains, and your favorite colorful vegetables. But you could find yourself feeling tired, bloated, or even unwell if you don’t get enough of the right nutrients, or eat foods that don’t agree with you.  

Of course, recognizing the effects of your meals and drinks on your mood, health, and emotions can be challenging if you don’t keep track of them — and that’s where food journals, aka food diaries, can come in handy. 

A food journal helps you reflect on why you eat, along with any other metrics you’re interested in, according to Dana Ellis Hunnes, senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and author of “Recipe for Survival.”

In a nutshell, keeping record of your meals — and the feelings they trigger — can help you make better decisions about what to eat.

Read on to learn how to start keeping your own food journal — and how it could benefit your health. 

What to track 

A helpful first step is deciding what you’ll track. 

The specific things you log in your journal may depend on your personal goals, but Kim Shapira, registered dietitian and nutritional coach at Trimly, recommends tracking things like: 

1. The type of food you eat

It’s best to log your meal in as much detail as possible

So, instead of just writing “salmon, green beans, and rice” for instance, you might write, “3 ounces broiled salmon with lemon and garlic, 1 cup green beans sauteed in 1 teaspoon olive oil, ⅔ cup cooked rice pilaf.” 

2. The amount of food you eat 

Weighing out portions before cooking them and writing down exactly how much you ate can help you determine whether your daily calorie intake is too much or too little for your needs. 

3. The timing of your meals 

It can help to pay attention to specific times of day you feel hungry, along with when you tend to eat.

Maybe you eat dinner at 5 pm but at bedtime feel too hungry to sleep. You might then decide to move dinner to 6:30 pm to avoid late-night snacking

Or, if you constantly feel hungry throughout the day, you might also opt for six small meals instead of three large ones. 

4. Any physical symptoms you experience

Do you often experience uncomfortable symptoms after eating, like pain, bloating, gas, or heartburn? Maybe you have trouble sleeping, or skin irritation you can’t explain

Writing these down in your food journal can help you pinpoint any links between specific foods and physical symptoms.  

This can also be helpful if you take any medications. If you notice certain foods seem to trigger unwanted side effects, you can talk to your prescribing clinician about alternate options. 

5. If you feel hungry or full after eating

Maybe you notice you frequently feel hungry after breakfast and realize your breakfast typically contains very little protein. 

Logging the nutrients in your diet, including vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and fats, can help you monitor whether you’re getting enough of these to fuel your day.

6. How you feel emotionally after eating

Does a large meal satisfy you, or leave you feeling anxious? Do you feel energized after your morning coffee, or on edge and unable to focus? 

Paying attention to these mood changes can help you determine whether any of them relate to your meals. 

7. How much water you drink each day

Water makes up an essential part of a balanced diet — and your food journal can help reveal whether you’re drinking enough to support your health. 

What’s more, it’s fairly common to feel hungry when you’re actually thirsty — so staying hydrated could help you recognize hunger more accurately. 

8. Other details

Shapira also suggests tracking additional details, including:

You may decide to track other factors that can influence your well-being, such as any medications you’re taking and the severity of any health or mental health symptoms you live with — especially those you suspect may affect your eating habits. 

You may also track your menstrual cycle phases if you menstruate, since experts have linked certain phases of the menstrual cycle to emotional eating and food cravings

How to get started

These tips can help you get the most out of your food journal:

1. Carry your journal wherever you go: Having your journal with you makes it easier to record your meals consistently and completely. If you rely on your memory, you might forget some details or even some of the things you ate.

2. Write down your meal before you eat it: Doing this helps you stay conscious of your food choices, so you have an opportunity to make changes in the future. Plus, journaling first makes it easier to document everything without forgetting any details.

3. Document your food in other ways if you don’t have your journal: If you’re about to eat without your journal, you can try other methods — like taking a photo, making a voice note, or grabbing a notepad for a quick scribble to log your meal until you get back to your journal.

4. Jot down thoughts and feelings that come up as you eat: This can help you spot emotional or comfort eating, track moods where you tend to reach for certain foods, and identify opportunities to do things differently. For instance, if you notice a pattern of eating when stressed, you might try other stress-busting strategies, like putting on your favorite music, doing some yoga, or calling your best friend to vent.

5. Make it a habit: Aim to keep your journal for at least a week, if not longer. Keeping one for under a week may not provide enough detail to notice patterns in your eating habits. 

Who should keep a food journal?

Everyone should keep a food journal, if only for a day, Shapira says. 

She adds that keeping one may help you notice something you didn’t before and learn from it — for instance, that you often consume more calories than you thought, or that you don’t drink very much water.

But a food journal may prove especially helpful if you’re: 

  • Training for an athletic event: Athletic events place a greater demand on your body, so you may need to pay closer attention to your meals to make sure you consume enough calories during training. Food journals can help you make sure you meet your goals for vitamins and minerals, along with macronutrients like carbohydrates, fats, and protein.
  • Managing an eating disorder: A food journal can make up an important part of treatment for eating disorders since they help you track your eating patterns as well as your emotions around food. You can then pinpoint things that trigger unhelpful thoughts about eating — and your care team can use this log to follow your treatment progress.
  • Trying to identify food triggers or allergies: If you live with a health condition that can cause flare-ups after meals, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), tracking your meals can help you determine if you’re more sensitive to certain foods. Spotting these patterns can help you avoid foods that trigger symptoms.
  • Managing your weight: A food journal can help you stay on track with weight loss, weight gain, or weight maintenance. In one study where researchers asked participants to keep a digital food journal, those who spent more time logging their meals lost more weight.
  • Building healthy eating habits: Your food journal can also serve as a daily reminder to choose nourishing foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and lean protein. It can also help you track how often you eat foods high in salt, added sugar, and saturated fats — which experts have linked to a number of health conditions, including cancer, diabetes, and kidney disease. You can also keep track of the timing of your meals, the quantity of food you eat, and whether you eat mindfully.

Can a food journal app help? 

A food journal app can help you record your meals and drinks in more vivid, convenient, and easy-to-track ways. For instance, some apps will tell you the composition of your food, let you take pictures of it, and also help you track your eating habits over time. 

Apps can also make the recording process faster, since they document the time, day, and date automatically. They often also contain templates reminding you to document your feelings and thoughts during your meal.

Examples of food journal apps include: 

See How You Eat 

  • Platform: Android and iOS
  • Cost: Free with limited features. The premium plan starts at $20 per year

Counting calories isn’t the best plan for everyone, and this app helps you keep track of meals without a calorie in sight. 

Instead of typing, you can simply take pictures of your food and voilà — you have a record. You can also share your meals on social media.

Ate 

This app is designed to help you stay mindful while eating. It doesn’t count calories. Instead, it focuses on the way your food looks and how it makes you feel. 

It also offers a list of experiments to keep you motivated every day, like eating from smaller plates or with your non-dominant hand, or taking two deep breaths before meals. 

Eating Enlightenment Journal 

This app places journaling in the center of your food tracking by encouraging you to log your meals before you eat and note your emotions and thoughts. It doesn’t track calories. 

MyFitnessPal

  • Platform: iOS and Android
  • Cost: Free with limited features and ads. The premium plan costs $9.99 per month or $49.99 per year.

This food journaling app gives information about the calories you consume, in addition to the water, fat, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, vitamin, and cholesterol content in each food. 

You can plan meals and connect with the large MyFitnessPal community for motivation and support.

LifeSum 

  • Platform: iOS and Android
  • Cost: Free with limited features. The premium plan costs $22 for four months, $30 for six months, or $45 per year.

This app tracks the calories, fat, carbohydrates, and protein in the food you consume. It also contains a meal planner and database with millions of foods to inspire you. However, it doesn’t offer any group forums or community support.

MyNetDairy 

  • Platform: iOS and Android
  • Cost: Free with ads and limited features. The premium plan costs $9 per month or $60 per year. 

This app has 15 million users and contains over 770,000 foods in its database, which helps you determine their calorie contents. 

It focuses on tracking calories and weight loss. Once you enter your gender, weight, and age, the app can help set a daily calorie budget.  

It can also help you work towards weight goals by tracking your progress, which requires you to continue inputting your weight over time. 

Lose it! 

  • Platform: iOS and Android
  • Cost: Free with limited features. The premium plan costs $40 a year.

This weight loss-focused app offers many options for tracking your meals. You can scan barcodes on packaged food items, search the app’s database, or use the Snap It feature to upload pictures of your food so the software can identify and record it. 

Insider’s takeaway

You can use a food journal to track what you eat each day — in addition to how your food makes you feel. 

That’s one reason why dietitians and therapists may recommend them if you’d like to get more insight on the connection between your emotions and your eating habits. 

You may also find a food journal helpful if you’re trying to identify a food sensitivity, change up your eating habits, or manage your weight. You can share your food journal with your healthcare team to get more insight into health symptoms that may be triggered by certain foods. 

Ultimately, a food journal can help you make food choices that align with your dietary needs, eat more mindfully, and stick with your food goals over time. 

This post was originally published on Insider

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