Start Simple: How To Use a Food Journal

October 4, 2019
6 min read

Simple, yet effective

Have you ever decided, “This is it, I am going all in with my diet this time, LET’S DO THIS!” only to fall off 2 weeks later? Or maybe you bought all new workout gear, got to the gym early and made some progress and then something got in the way and it fell apart? Unfortunately, this happens to a lot of people without some sort of guidance in the fitness world. People tend to take on more than they can handle only to have it overwhelm them. I compare it to the first day of a new school year. You sit down excited (maybe), ready to learn, and then the syllabus comes out. You’ve got 5 papers to write, 2 midterms, a final, and 2 group projects to do. Wow, that’s a lot. How in the heck are you going to finish all that? But at the end of the semester, you did it all, and you did well! Why can’t that happen in Fitness?

Too many times we see all the work ahead of us and get overwhelmed. Without a plan and without guidance, we can fall off the wagon. Only it is a lot easier to stop when it comes to fitness and nutrition… there is no final grade at the end AND most people are trying to do it without any help! You wouldn’t jump right into the final exam without learning the material throughout the year, would you? Unfortunately that is what a lot of people try to do with their fitness and nutrition. They want the end result so badly, they end up skipping ahead and end up overwhelmed and under prepared. In reality, it would be smarter to start simple and work their way up, learning along the way.

I made this mistake with my clients for far too long, wanting to get them to their result as quickly as possible. I would have my clients track and weigh food right off the bat. Talk about a lot to handle! They were going from not even thinking about food, to weighing out pieces of chicken! That’s when I had my own moment of clarity and realized, this is just too much at once. People need to learn and experience everything associated with fitness and nutrition as they go, taking it one step at a time. Luckily, I have the first step right here for you. I am going to show how something as easy as journaling your food can make a huge impact on adherence, education, and fun along the journey.

Food journal - a simple educational tool with big outcomes

I present to you, the food journal. A simple tool that allows someone new to all this diet and exercise stuff to stick their toe in the water and see how it feels.  I recently had a client email me and say “Wow, I never realized I wasn’t eating breakfast and it seems like I don’t eat much fat.”  That right there is the power of the food journal. It allowed my client to take a broad look at what he was eating and do some analysis of his own. As a coach, that is exactly what I am looking for and music to my ears because now, he is interested in fixing it! Talk about adherence. All he had to do was write down what he ate at the end of the day. How easy is that? In reality the food journal does a few big things:

  • Allows those who are new and tracking their food for the first time an easy starting point
  • Allows some self reflection - the clients choices are staring them in the face
  • Can increase motivation and adherence by giving them small victories

Those are some of the really big picture concepts of a food journal, but there are also some smaller educational attributes as well. Here are the big reason why you should start with a food journal and leave the more technical stuff for later:

  • Learn to identify what a carbohydrate, fat, and protein source are and how they fit in the diet
  • See where you may be missing meals, food groups, or overeating
  • Forces a client to look at nutrition labels encourages learning
  • Easiest starting point for a beginner
  • Makes dietary trends visible to everyone involved- gives you a direction for future changes
  • Gets people used to keeping track and filling out data without feeling overwhelmed
  • Can help people understand the process that goes into changing their habits
  • Starts the process of understanding how certain foods interact with their body

I have seen this time and time again and will never go away from starting with a simple food journal for anyone who wants to lose weight or gain muscle. The food journal has a hidden power to give you your starting point for where you truly are with your diet. From there, you can continually adjust and increase the complexity of what you are doing. This all stems off of a simple sheet used in the first two weeks. Ultimately, the food journal gives you you starting point on your road map to fitness and better health. By now, you know I love the journal, but how do you do it?

How to start

The three easiest ways to start are with a real live journal (pen and paper), an excel sheet, or a calorie app like My Fitness Pal.  All that is needed is the date in one column and then categories for different meals, based on that person's diet. So you may have breakfast, lunch, and dinner across the top. After this, you need a spot for your 3 big macronutrients- Carbs, Fat, and Protein. The goal is to look at the nutrition label and place the food into the correct category based on what it is mostly made up of. Here are some easy examples:

  • Carbs- Bread, rice, fruit, chocolate, veggies, etc.
  • Fat- Nuts, Oils, Avocado, Cheeses, Dairy etc.
  • Protein - Meats, protein powder, etc.

So, if you have eggs, a banana, and some almond butter for breakfast your sheet would look like this:

Breakfast- Carbs= Banana, Fat= Almond Butter, Protein = Eggs.

Keep in mind, it can be expanded if they have a mid morning or mid afternoon snack regularly or have any other variations. Ultimately, the goal is to have them track everything they eat and have a spot for it. Now sometimes different foods may satisfy two categories and that is okay! Think something like salmon. Salmon has good fat and protein amounts and it can count for both categories.

How to keep it going

After we have established a baseline, and have our food journal going, what’s next? Well, here are the usual steps I take:

  • Journal only for a minimum of two weeks. This allows trends to develop
  • Eat what you normally would eat, don’t try to change up your diet. This allows someone to see your trends and identify foods that might not be the best choice.
  • After 1 week of just journaling, set small goals. Shoot for 10 grams of each macronutrient at each meal. 10 grams is a very low number but it at least encourages a balance at each meal. This helps set a realistic reachable goal. Again, easy victories.
  • Add in variables as you see fit. In the example above, they begin tracking their weight each morning. You can add in simple things like sugar intake, steps, and water.
  • Continue until you have enough data to make the next move, for me it is taking the first step toward estimating true food consumption. Future blog on this coming soon!

Ultimately I believe strongly in the power of starting simple, and the food journal is an easy way to do just that.  It allows people the freedom they need to start changing their dietary habits and not feel so overwhelmed all at once. Some people may feel it is “too slow” for them, but I would still recommend the two week minimum before diving in, only so that trends can be identified and those involved can see what a week in the life looks like.

Also, some people may try to eat “healthy” and all you will see on their journal is veggies and lean meat. This is something that can happen but it should be said that to truly help someone, we need to know what the real issues are. So allow yourself or your client some room to be themselves and offer alternatives once you have the data. And next time you are looking at the whole journey and feeling overwhelmed, ask yourself, “how can I keep this simple?” The food Journal is only one of the many ways to get started, but in my opinion is a powerful option. Now that long journey looks a little less scary, doesn’t it?


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