That’s because most people really have no idea what they’re actually eating every day. Research shows that most people have an idea about what they’re eating that is quite a bit off from the reality.
One of the most effective tools for helping people assess their weight and nutritional issues is the dietary diary. For some, being required to actually write down everything that goes into their mouth can be a real eye-opener. There are people who have looked back over a diary and realized they hadn’t eaten a bite of fresh fruit or vegetable for days at a time!
For dieticians, a food diary is a critical part of patient assessment and treatment planning, but you can learn an awful lot about yourself, your habits, and your needs just by keeping an honest diary for even a few days.
The key word here is honest, meaning both truthful and thorough. It doesn’t much help to only include the food you eat at meals when you’re consuming thirty percent of your daily calories between meals.
It’s important to know that a really good food diary will be more than just a list of foods and quantities. To be most helpful, it needs to include some additional situational data. For instance, note where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, and when you ate those foods. And you should also note how you were feeling before you ate; assess your hunger level and note any particular craving you were having.
Why all that? If you keep a diary this way, you’ll be able to look back and recognize specific habits and patterns that are undermining your goal of getting healthy. Until you write it down, you may not realize that every time you get together with Bob for lunch and a chat on Tuesdays, you end up having a soda and often a cookie or other treat to go along with your meal. That could be a few hundred extra calories you weren’t even noticing.
Keep an honest diary for a week and then take a look at it. You can learn a lot about yourself just by considering the following questions:
Related to what you were doing:
- Were any of your snacks or meals taken in front of the television?
- Did you frequently nibble while preparing meals or clearing up afterwards?
- Did you eat while you were engaged in other activities, such as reading a book or working? Did you eat while involved in some collective activity, perhaps a lunch meeting at work?
You can look at those answers and tell whether you’re unconsciously consuming more than you intended. Almost any time we’re eating while doing something else, research shows we’ll eat more. We’ll often eat even when we’re not hungry if food is included as part of another activity.
You can limit this unconscious behavior by taking a set portion and sticking with it. Even if you’re just nibbling snack mix at a party, you can put some in a cup and slowly work your way through that limited portion, rather than standing by the bowl, chatting and nibbling.
Related to who you were with:
- Looking back at your diary entries, do you notice any differences in the amount of food you ate when alone as compared to when you were with others?
- Were there any people who particularly influenced you to eat more than you really wanted, or kinds of food you didn’t want, whether they did it deliberately or not?
- Were there any people who influenced you to eat the kinds and amounts of food you planned to eat to begin with?
Those answers might tell you that if you eat more when you’re alone, you might be embarrassed by the type or amounts of food you’re eating and trying to hide it. If you eat more in front of others, it could be that you’re eating out of nervousness, or to keep your hands busy, or to be polite.
If it’s an issue of pleasing the host, you can usually explain that you are on a restricted diet and may not be able to eat all the foods offered. While most people are not comfortable explaining that they’re on a weight-loss diet, many find it easier to explain in terms of the health benefits they’re trying to attain, just briefly stating their on a restricted diet to lower their cholesterol or blood sugar. Others tend to be more supportive after such an explanation as well.
If you’re eating out of nervousness, you could try chewing gum and, as silly as it may seem, wearing clothes with pockets to put your hands in. Many nervous nibblers find pockets a great relief.
You can continue to seek support from the people who seem to have a positive influence on your intake. Show them you appreciate their support and perhaps include them in your weight management strategies.
And if you’re being undermined by someone you care for, try negotiating. Try to understand the situation from his or her point of view. She may not be aware of how serious you are about managing your eating habits, so her “Aw, come on, you can have just one,” may be well-meaning. Indeed, people often feel obligated to be dismissive about others weight concerns to show they don’t think negatively of their weight.
These are just a few things you can learn from a food diary, but you can see that having the information laid out clearly paints a picture that not only helps you understand the problem, but also provides good guidance in planning the solution.
Where you see a problem or weakness, write in your food diary the solution you'd like to implement and the steps that are required to make it work. Keep track of those each day and your feelings about each step. Is it working? Do you feel good about it? Is it too hard or not challenging enough?
It's just as important to record the habits that are helping make you healthier and stronger as it is to make note of weaknesses and goals to change them. You're on the right track! Keep up the good work!