How that thing that gives you dieting nightmares could be a million times more awesome

Food journaling.

Yeah, this post is about food journaling.

What was your reaction when I wrote that? Did you think “yeah, I’m going to skip over this post” ?

Did you think “Food journaling is a f***ing pain and I definitely don’t want to do it, so I’m just going to go to that post that tells me to spend this whole weekend eating nothing but apple pie” ?

Can you eat this cupcake? Abso-freaking-lutely. Should you write down whether you were hungry when you ate it? Yeah, probably.

Can you eat this cupcake? Abso-freaking-lutely. Should you write down whether you were hungry when you ate it? Yeah, probably.

If you did, I don’t blame you. I’ve tried traditional food journaling before (which, for you dieting newbies out there, means that you write down the food and calories [or Points, if you're a Weigh Watchers alum] in the food you consume).

And I freaking hated food journaling too. I hated what a headache it was to figure out how many calories were in the food I ate – how many calories are in that half a piece of cake I just ate from Amy’s Bread? Do I have to weigh it or estimate how large it was (was it half a cup? Or three quarters??).

And I hated how constrained it made me feel – if I went crazy and had a perfect almond croissant for breakfast, it would throw my whole day off, and all I could eat for dinner was greens and beans. It felt like a mean drill sergeant was watching over me all the time.

(And you can bet that when I felt constrained and tight by the number of calories I was restricted to, I inevitably went over. Way over.)

Or maybe you’ve never written down what you’ve eaten and how many calories you consume in your life. You might be a Flow Eater – a type of eater that doesn’t spend too much time obsessing or thinking about what they eat (want to know if you are? Look out for my eating-style quiz, to be released soon!), and the thought of having to track your eating like that sounds exhausting.

But here’s what I have to tell you: I totally agree that the food journaling we’ve all done before gives me scary-diet-flashbacks.

But what if it could actually be life-affirming, gentle, and one of your top tools for gaining insight into your inner life and feeling more fabulous on a daily basis?

It can.

Food journaling, the way I do it, can help you treat yourself with kindness. It can be a gentle tool for increasing awareness of when you eat when you’re not hungry, or eat past fullness, or eat without paying attention to your food at all.

But let’s be clear, it’s not yo momma’s (or Weight Watcher’s) food journaling. You will not:

  • Count calories, carbs, sugar, gluten, or exact portions
  • Try to restrict what you eat in any way
  • Ever make yourself feel badly for the choices you make. Food journaling is a way of being nice to yourself. Period.

Here’s what food journaling for intuitive + luscious eating does look like:

  • You write down what you ate and when you ate
  • You also write down whether you were hungry before, how full you were after you ate, and any other emotions that were going on for you.

Here’s what my food journal looked like, a little over 4 years ago, when I first started my intuitive eating journey:

 

April 3, 2010 (4 years ago)

  • 8 am 
    • Toast w/ peanut butter + banana
    • Not really hungry. I wanted to eat before running out for the day, though.
  • Noon
    • Bacon grilled cheese, a pear, part of a cookie. 
    • I was hungry, but I think I really just wanted a break. Ended up working while I ate, ugh.
  • 4 pm
    • A few bites of a cookie
    • Not hungry, but I’m proud of myself. I realized after eating it that I wasn’t hungry, and that I was eating because I didn’t want to work.  So I let myself stop working and take a walk and then watch an episode of tv.
  • 7 pm
    • Some chicken, some pasta and some salad from the buffet. And then a medium-sized piece of m&m pie and half a cookie
    • Honestly, I’m not sure that I was hungry when I went to go eat. And then definitely ate way past fullness, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t. I think it was b/c I didn’t really like being at that table with all of those people – I wanted to be alone

 

And here's what a day of eating looked like for me recently:

August 4, 2014

  • 8 am
    • Cereal, milk, nectarine
    • Just a little bit hungry, ate to fullness. Was running out the door to work + ate quickly
  • 11 am
    • Some trail mix
    • Yes, was hungry
  • 1 pm
    • Fancy tuna sandwich
    • Yes, and I ate to fullness
  • 3 pm
    • Apple
    • Not really hungry. Everyone at work was eating apples and I wanted one
  • 6 pm
    • 1 dark chocolate peanut butter cup
    • A little, but mostly I wanted chocolate because I got home from work and was exhausted. I knew it wouldn’t fix the problem, but I decided that it was a tiny amount of food and wouldn’t kill me.
  • 8 pm
    • Raw cucumber and bell pepper, fancy ground beef hamburger, pumpkin ravioli in cinnamon and butter, ½ a slice of leftover cake and half a cookie
    • Yes, I was really hungry. Felt happy and full after.
       

So what's the difference between then and now?

Well, it isn't that I never eat when I’m not hungry. It’s that I am much more aware of it, so it ends up being a single peanut butter cup, rather than a whole slice of cake.

But maybe you’re still not convinced. Here are some FAQs from a totally hypothetical alter ego that I’ll call “Grumpy Katie” :

 

GK: I don’t have time to keep a food journal.

Answer: First of all, I don’t believe that is a thing. Food journaling will take you less than 7 minutes a day.

But, most people who say that they don’t have time to food journal are really saying “the effort required to pay attention to whether I am hungry or not when I eat is too much.”

And that is something I definitely understand. It is really exhausting to pay attention to whether you are hungry, and to all of the deep-down reasons that are driving you to over-eat. If you pay attention, you might find that you’re eating because you don’t like your life, because people you thought you liked made you unhappy, because your job or your work or your family makes you stressed out. And that might be a terrible thing to find.

This is a very complicated issue that I want to address more in a future post, but for the moment, I will say this: the choice is always yours – are you going to be aware and present in your own life, or are you going to go numb? And you don’t have to make that decision forever and ever. For now, just try being awake for 1 day. Just for tomorrow. And inevitably, there will be moments when you numb out. But note them later, in your food journal. That’s what it is there for.

 

GK: During the day, I’m always around people. I can’t pull out a food journal and write down what I eat – everyone would see!

Answer: Yeah, this is a really tough problem. There’s two ways of dealing with this that I know about. The first is that you can be as discreet as possible. When I was keeping a food journal in a notebook, sometimes I’d sneak away to a bathroom or an empty conference room and quickly write things down.

But the other (and potentially better) solution is that you could not try to write it down during the day. Just mentally note what you’re eating and whether you’re hungry, and write it all down at night, or before bed. This isn’t a carte-blanche to not bring awareness to your food (you still need to do that!), but you can do it late at night.

 

GK: This sounds exhausting. I can’t do this for the rest of my life!!!

Answer: First of all, I do not keep a food journal regularly now, and I haven’t for a long time.

Now, most of the time I am quite aware of my hunger levels and other subtle emotional undercurrents, so I don’t need to. But it was essential at the beginning of my food journey to bring awareness, and anytime I feel my eating get out of wack, I’ll go back to doing it for a few days, or a few weeks.

But I’m also sensing, in that question, the fact that you are overwhelmed. So I also just want to acknowledge – yeah, this is really overwhelming. The thought of doing anything about your “food problem” that doesn’t involve putting it in a cage and saying “bad dog!” (e.g., going on a diet) can be especially overwhelming. So I’d really encourage you to be as kind to yourself as possible, to take this one gentle day at a time. 

 

This was a longer post, and if you’ve made it through, I really hope you’ll try out food journaling. I really can’t say enough good things about the impact it made on my life – doing it was the first time I ever realized all the ways in which I was using food to deal with things (emotions, people, work) that had nothing to do with food.

Do you have good experiences with food journaling? Bad experiences? Will you try it out now? Let me know in the comments below!