food diaries: the secret weapon

30 Nov

You know, I have read the following piece of advice roughly six million times: You should keep a food diary. And it never convinced me. Not for years. I read it and thought, “Eh. That sounds annoying, plus I already know what I eat.”

But I finally started doing it. And you know what? It is amazing.

It’s not just a matter of knowing what you eat (although of course most of us are not as aware of that as we think: when you look back at your day, it’s easy to forget about that half of a cookie that you shared with your toddler or the handful of crackers you munched while you cooked dinner). It’s also about seeing the patterns of when you eat, whether you miss meals or snack all the time or wait until dinnertime to try to cram in all of your vegetables. For me, the most interesting thing about it is that it shows me how my nutrients break down–lunch is my biggest problem, it turns out, both in terms of eating empty calories and of failing to eat vegetables or protein. It’s much easier to eat some crackers or pop some popcorn than to make a real lunch, especially since I’m only at home for lunch a couple of days a week (a lot of the time I’m eating that meal in between teaching classes).

Seeing that pattern encourages me to improve it. Even if I’m not likely to start making gourmet lunches 7 days a week, it does help me remember that I could be eating an omelet with some vegetables instead of cheese and crackers, for example. Seeing it in print reminds me that if I cook a bit more dinner, I could be eating leftovers instead–a leftover lunch that’s already packed and easy to eat, and one that’s balanced and healthful.

I’ve been using SparkPeople (www.sparkpeople.com), but any of the food-tracking services out there will work (Daily Plate, for example, is another). You could also just use a notebook, especially if you’re not counting calories/nutrients or if you eat the same things often enough that you’ll memorize those foods. I like knowing the basic breakdown of protein/fat/carbohydrates; it helps remind me to eat enough protein. I also really like having an idea of how much sodium I’m eating. All of those things help me remember that every bite I put into my mouth counts; every bite matters. That’s not to say that I can’t eat what I want–one of the other benefits of the food log is that I *do* feel able to have treats, as long as I can see on paper that my general habits are still pretty good.

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