Food journal -- blech. Just the phrase is enough to conjure images of yourself slaving over a food scale and frantically writing in a notebook. Though food journaling seems like an arduous task, it doesn't have to be, and it can even propel you toward your health goals if done properly.
Food journaling is a great way to make yourself more aware of what you're consuming on a daily basis, and it can make weight loss -- or weight gain, or even weight maintenance -- efforts much easier. Food journaling can also help people who have medical conditions that require attention to diet, such as diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. And, it can help guide discussions between you and your doctor about potential medical conditions.
Here are nine tips to keep in mind when logging your food, plus five great food diary apps so you can ditch the notebook and save some time.
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1. Write down everything -- even if it's 'just a taste'
You can log all the meals and snacks in the world, but if you don't log the small, unsuspecting tidbits of food and drink you consume, your food journal won't be accurate.
Examples: You're baking a new dessert and dipping your finger in the batter every so often to make sure it tastes good. You swipe a donut hole every time you walk by the break room at work. You usually drink black coffee, but today you decide to add creamer.
To make sure your efforts support your goals, such as weight loss or muscle gain, jot these things down as they occur. A good tactic is to write it in your phone's notes app transfer it to your journal later. You can pretty easily estimate these kinds of small tastes. For example, if you decide to add half-and-half to your coffee, you can base your entry off of the serving size for half-and-half: one tablespoon is 20 calories. If you think you poured more, note that.
In the long run, 20 calories of coffee cream won't make or break your food journal, but continually snacking and not logging will result in inaccuracies that leave you wondering why you haven't reached your goals.
2. Be honest and specific
Write down exactly what you ate, not a version of what you ate to avoid uncomfortable feelings. For example, if you ate fried chicken strips, don't just write "chicken." That's unspecific and won't help you in the long run.
It definitely won't help if you're trying to track your macronutrients, because "chicken" and "fried chicken strips" have very different macronutrient profiles.
You should also write down the amounts of food you eat. For example, don't just write "oatmeal with bananas." Write "quarter-cup of rolled oats with half a banana."
3. Get to know serving sizes
If you're not already familiar with serving sizes, you should measure foods precisely for the first few weeks of food journaling. It's probably a good idea to invest in a food scale if you've never tracked and logged food before, because underestimating portion sizes is easier than you think. You don't need anything expensive -- a basic food scale from Wal-mart or Target will do the trick.
After a while, you can start eyeballing your portions instead of measuring everything out. For instance, 3 ounces of protein is about the size of a deck of cards. A 2-tablespoon scoop of nut butter is about the size of a ping pong ball. One teaspoon is about the size of a dice.
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4. Take photos
Human memories aren't as great as they're made out to be. Our mental filing cabinets are actually super susceptible to inaccuracies and forgetfulness, and it doesn't take long to trick yourself into believing a lie.
That's why you should take photos of your food in addition to writing things down in your food journal. Visual evidence is the most accurate evidence, plus it's fun to look back and see how your eating patterns have shifted over time.
5. Log the three Ws: When, where and who with
What time did you eat, where did you eat, and who were you with while eating? These things all have a big impact on how much we eat and what kinds of food we eat.
I, for one, am very aware that I tend to eat much more if I'm sitting on the couch versus sitting at the table. Perhaps this is because the couch is a less formal setting, and I feel more relaxed there. I also know that I tend to eat less when I'm in the presence of others, probably because I'm distracted and talking and enjoying the company.
6. Write down what you were doing while eating
Just like the three Ws impact how much and what we eat, mealtime activities also affect our choices. People love to sit in front of the TV with dinner or snacks, and eating with no distractions seems so boring. But scientists think that distracted eating may make you inadvertently eat more than you need (or even want). Writing down what you're doing while eating can help you understand your eating patterns.
7. Track your moods
I eat when I'm bored or stressed. My best friend eats when she's sad or lonely. Everyone has different coping mechanisms for different emotions, but I'm willing to bet that you, too, eat in response to a particular emotion.
In fact, emotional eating is a legitimate health concern. Paying attention to your moods and how they affect the types of food you eat can help you discover other ways to cope with emotions.
8. Log how you feel before, during and after eating
This tip is not so much about emotions, but about how you feel physically. Before you eat a meal, write down how you feel. What's your energy level? Does your digestion feel normal? How focused do you feel?
As you eat, note whether anything changes. When you finish your meal, log how you feel immediately after finishing, 30 minutes after, and a couple of hours later. This trick can help you identify any food sensitivities that might be upsetting your digestion.
9. Do it right now
I don't mean to sound pushy, but don't rely on your memory after a long day. If you jot things down in your food journal right after you eat, the entries will be more accurate. Plus, it'll seem to take less time -- logging one meal might take 5 minutes, whereas logging all of the day's meals at once might take 30 minutes or more.
Food diary apps to help
If you have the time and energy to log your food by hand, you are envied. Most people struggle to get through their work and home to-do lists, let alone add food journaling to the mix. To make things a bit easier -- and quicker -- try one of these five food tracking apps.
With millions of foods in its database and a convenient bar-code scanner, MyFitnessPal might be the easiest way to keep a food journal. After you log your food, the app breaks it down into several nutritional components, including calories, fat, protein, carbs, sugar, fiber, cholesterol and vitamins.
Ideal for those who value simplicity, Lifesum offers macro and calorie counting, as well as meal plans, recipes and a three-week weight loss program. Your Life Score summarizes everything you log in the app for one comprehensive score that tells you whether you're reaching your goals.
MyPlate by Livestrong.com makes food journaling pretty easy. The app is user-friendly and super accessible, with great Dynamic Type and voiceover features. Your daily snapshot of macronutrients and progress make it easy and fun to keep up with your healthy eating goals.
Cronometer is for data lovers. It offers more metrics and measurements than the average person probably needs, such as more than 60 different micronutrients and cholesterol levels, but it's worth a shot if you're really serious about your diet or need to track several health metrics in one place.
See How You Eat
If you want to take the photography route, this app takes the cake. See How You Eat takes the focus away from calorie counting and shifts it to visual portion sizes and colors, which might help you cut calories without realizing it, as well as encourage you to eat more colorful fruits and veggies.