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Keeping track of your food—and calories—is often the first piece of advice you’ll hear if you want to lose weight. Phone applications are available to monitor everything from your macros to your workout routine by syncing with fitness trackers and other gadgets. And while there’s some merit to tracking your meals with a food journal, paying super close attention to everything you eat might affect your mental health. Which begs the question: Is food tracking really for you?
The intention behind food journaling should be to identify the connection between symptoms you’re experiencing (like weight gain or stomach discomfort) with eating patterns, explains Rachel Begun, M.S., R.D.N., health and nutrition expert and executive coach. “While it’s important to journal right after eating, so as to capture details precisely, it’s better to review the data over longer increments of time to identify patterns, such as on a weekly basis,” she says.
Food journaling offers the opportunity to identify patterns and habits that need changing and take steps toward making those behavior changes over time with the help of a professional, Begun adds. “If you find yourself obsessing over what you eat, or the act of tracking is negatively affecting your life or work in any way, that’s a sign that food journaling may be harmful rather than helpful.”
What are the benefits of food journaling?
There are benefits to the practice of food journaling, and limiting how often you’re thinking about food by forgetting digital trackers and opting for a good old notebook and pen, so you don’t have to worry about pesky notifications is your best bet, says Abby Langer R.D., owner of Abby Langer Nutrition and author of Good Food, Bad Diet.
Here are the benefits of tracking what you eat:
- Pinpointing an allergy. When you believe you may have a food allergy or intolerance, food journaling is a great way to keep an eye on what you eat. Keep a log of the foods you’re eating and how you feel throughout the day. As symptoms arise, and, with the help of a registered dietitian, find patterns in your diet and symptoms. Together, you can effectively remove foods causing your body distress, explains Langer.
- Discovering the cause of underlying digestive issues. Hemalee Patel, D.O., a physician at One Medical in San Francisco, recommends patients track food if they’re experiencing symptoms like digestive issues or frequent headaches. Simply keep track of what you’re eating and jot down how you feel after you eat certain foods. She finds this can be helpful in determining the connection between what you eat and how you feel as a result.
- Understanding eating habits and encouraging weight loss. Tracking your food can help you identify patterns by taking a deep dive into your eating habits and allow you to be more mindful about your food choices to reach your goals, explains Begun. Food journaling can be especially useful for patients who struggle to lose weight by highlighting foods that may have hidden sugars, are overly processed, or are consumed too frequently, adds Dr. Patel. But, for anyone who has a history of disordered eating or anxiety, Sari Chait Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, encourages working with a mental health professional when food tracking for weight loss.
- Help make connections between eating and emotions. Langer says food journaling can be a useful tool for someone experiencing emotional eating, especially if they make note of how they feel while eating certain foods. “Food journaling can show a person what they’re eating—it’s so easy to forget. Those bites, tastes, snacks, and all of that stuff can add up. When you’re journaling, you don’t forget that kind of stuff,” she says. Additionally, your doctor may also suggest food tracking if you’re dealing with binge eating or have restrictive eating behaviors because then they can help you sort through the issues around it, explains Dr. Chait. Under the guidance of your doctor, together you can watch for emotional triggers and ensure you’re not partaking in unhealthy habits.
What are the cons of food journaling?
Though food tracking short-term can be a healthy way to find patterns in your diet so you can make much-needed changes, the actual act of counting calories and food, in general, could be detrimental to your mental health.
These are the cons of tracking what you eat:
- The behavior may become obsessive and/or trigger disordered eating. Dr. Patel notes that food tracking is meant to point out food triggers or to understand how food affects your body in a short period of time (which she defines as less than seven days). Oftentimes food journaling can become an obsessive daily practice, which can lead to disordered eating patterns. If food tracking causes unhealthy behaviors like skipping meals, cutting out food categories unnecessarily, avoiding social plans, or interfering with your day-to-day life on the whole, you may want to take a step back and ask for professional help, Begun warns. Dr. Chait adds that she doesn’t recommend using food tracking for weight loss or weight maintenance for anyone with a history of disordered eating or high anxiety without the guidance of a doctor and mental health professional. She warns it may lead to serious food restriction or increased anxiety if not done properly under supervision.
- You turn to a phone app for help before your doctor. Your doctor or a registered dietitian is necessary to guide you when food journaling, but a phone application or algorithm can’t accurately determine your calorie needs, explains Langer. Everyone needs different calories based on their health, activity levels, and how they metabolize foods—things a phone application cannot factor in, she explains. Be sure to talk to your doctor, mental health professional, or registered dietitian before opening an app to begin tracking.
- You lose joy in eating. Calorie counting with an app can often lead to frustration in finding the exact combination of foods to match your daily calorie goals. Plus, it can be difficult to log specific foods you might eat out—posing an unnecessary level of social stress, says Langer.
- You may lose the connection between your body and food. Dr Chait adds it’s important to be aware of how you feel when tracking your food, and many apps don’t allow for making those notes and looking at the larger picture to pinpoint triggers and emotional eating. That’s why it’s useful to use a traditional notebook to ensure you can reflect on your eating. Though a benefit of food journaling can be getting more in tune with your body, Langer warns shrinking your meals down to just a number can cause the opposite. If you’re only aiming for a calorie or macro goal instead of focusing on how you feel when you eat, this could cause you to lose sight of the connection between your body and what you eat.
Are there alternatives to food journaling?
If food tracking isn’t for you, there are other great ways to reframe how you think about your eating to ensure you’re making the best choices for you. To start, Langer suggests focusing on building a nutritious plate at each and every meal.
“Build your meal around protein and vegetables, and add in carbs after,” she says. “Fill half your plate with vegetables and then add a high-quality source of protein.” Some high-quality sources of protein include chicken, tofu, and salmon. She adds it’s important to eliminate distractions when you eat, include a variety of foods, and don’t unnecessarily eliminate foods (like dairy or gluten) unless you have a true allergy or intolerance.
Langer also emphasizes the importance of intuitive eating by listening to your body. If you take note of your hunger cues or changes in your body weight or energy levels, you’ll know when you need to eat more or fewer foods. Begun agrees and encourages talking to a registered dietitian for support and reading the many books that can introduce you to the topic.
And if you’re struggling to find success on your own, Dr. Chait encourages seeking help from a professional outside source. “There are therapists who specialize in helping people lose and maintain weight in healthy ways, particularly using cognitive behavioral therapy. There are also therapists who specialize in treating disordered eating and can help,” she says.
If you believe you are struggling with an eating disorder and need support, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at (800) 931-2237. You can text HOME to 741741 to message with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free.
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