“Food Diaries”…useful or obsessive?

Recently I stopped keeping a food diary. No big deal you may think. But I had kept a food diary without a break for roughly four years. This was a big deal for me. And so far, I’m enjoying life food diary free. I’ve seen both the positives and negatives of keeping a food diary, and wanted to share some of my insight in this post…

Food diaries can be a massive help when you’re trying to move yourself into a healthy weight range. I’m not just going to say “loose weight”- because keeping track of what you’re eating can also help you gain weight if you’re struggling with that. It’s also a useful tool if you want to prep for a competition (though I’ve never done this), so have very specific goals in mind. The idea is that you simply write down what you’re eating each day, and usually how much water/other beverages you’re consuming. I also used to track my workouts here too. Something like this can help you gain a really great overview of your habits, and tweak them when needed.

Which brings us to story time guys: when I was fourteen I was 10 stone 7lb, and 5ft 3inches. I was at a BMI of 26, and classed as overweight. Even leaving BMI aside, I felt like crap: I was eating crappy food, I was slow, I felt sluggish. When I first decided I needed to try and lose weight, I had never heard of a food diary. But once I got into YouTube I discovered them, and from then on I kept one.

At first it helped immensely. I realised that:

  1. I wasn’t eating enough fruit and veg
  2. My lunch every day was a sandwich on thick white bread, with maybe one piece of fruit, and then sweet stuff
  3. I wasn’t really doing any exercise
  4. I was eating a massive dessert, sometimes with seconds, every night (which is odd, because even then I didn’t have a massive sweet tooth: I was eating it simply because it was there)
  5. I was drinking almost no water

I began keeping a basic food diary as described above. A few months down the line I began doing a monthly evaluation of my progress, looking back at what I had eaten/had to drink/ how much exercise I had done. At first, knowing little about healthy eating, I had been eating special K bars, and tiny yoghurts, and cutting out bread, and all kinds of ridiculous stuff. As I learnt more about how to look after myself my food diaries evolved too: I learnt that I felt better eating non-“diet” foods, and just sticking to proper food. In this sense, food diaries helped me enormously in identifying problems, and then rectifying them.

But. There is always a “but”. I didn’t really know when to stop. And as I discovered pilates, yoga, weights, HIIT…I had no idea that I wasn’t eating enough to fuel this. I thought I would just become “lean”. I wasn’t seeing the results I wanted to, and instead of realising that I wasn’t eating enough, I felt I was perhaps not eating “clean” enough. And so this is where my food diary became unhelpful. I tend to eat three meals and three snacks a day now, all of a decent size, and though I try not to count calories, I know that my body tends to feel satisfied at around 2100kcal on a non-workout day, and up to 2500 on a workout day (of which there are now 3 per week). Back then I was eating maybe 1800kcal on a workout day, and doing Pilates videos on YouTube every day nearly. If my food for the day took up more than a certain number of lines in that food diary, then I was doing something wrong. If I exceeded three small meals and two small snacks back then, I was doing something wrong. If certain foods popped up (think bread, chocolate, even regular potato instead of sweet potato, white rice instead of brown, a meal out) then that day was a write off. This is where my food diary came in handy again though…

Since a few months after I first began to lose weight I had developed a habit of binge eating. Quite badly. I would wait until people were out of the house, and then eat myself sick. If I wasn’t binging I was restricting, in an attempt to “fix” things. In hindsight, this restricting contributed greatly to the binging, along with other emotional factors. Ironically, at one point when I was binging, my total kcal probably added up to 2500-3000kcal, which my body would have desperately needed. Eventually, I began to see this binge/restrict/binge/restrict pattern in my food diary. I began to make an effort to stop restricting. And my binge eating episodes gradually became fewer and fewer. In fact, they all but stopped, other than when I’d passed my limit of a few drinks (we’re now looking at 19 year old Emily). After drinking too much I don’t tend to throw up or get drunk, but I become really, really fixated on eating. Which is funny, if I have someone to police my eating just enough to settle my stomach. However, in foresight I still hadn’t fully done away with restricting, though I felt I was doing well. One afternoon after having drinks to celebrate the end of the exam period, my drink was spiked and it triggered a massive binge. I have never seen one like it. When I got in I jotted down what I had eaten in red, and the next day I was able to see why I needed to a) monitor what/where my drink was, and b) that I needed to stop restricting.

I began eating more but, to skip forward roughly 3-4 months, still not enough. I was fixated on my day’s eating only taking up a certain space in that food notebook. This is where my weight had dropped to an all time low of 7stone 3 lbs, for a height of 5ft 4 inches, and an active lifestyle of the gym 4-5 times a week, walking to and from uni, and long library sessions. I decided I needed to gain weight. Coincidentally, I went to the doctors to have my vitamin D levels checked (living in Britain with not much sun, this was nothing to really worry about, and I had it done regularly since it had been noted as low). Something else came up on the bloods: my white blood cells had dropped, and I couldn’t fight off infection very well. I was told to gain weight, something I’d already realised I needed to do and was working on, but more rapidly. Again, to cut a lot more out, I turned to that food diary, and it did help me…

I began to look back, and saw I had been eating much less than I had thought. Not enough. I upped my portion sizes; my diet by this point was very nutrient rich, but my portion sizes were out of whack. I began to try and eat the foods I had become wary of, setting a goal of 2-3 a month. I gained, over 6 months, about 1 stone. I also, as an added bonus this time, was becoming stronger. I looked back at my goals and realised that I hadn’t been becoming stronger because I was too focused on becoming leaner- two different things. Without a food diary to act as a record, I don’t think I would have seen this.

Which brings us to now. About a week or two ago I began to notice that old habit of trying to squeeze my food into a certain number of lines had popped back up. And so I decided to try an experiment: I would stop keeping a food diary. I’ve recently begun trying to just listen to my body now that my weight is healthy, and stable. This was the next step. And so far, it’s going really well. Some days, I might not eat that much- other days I might eat three meals, three snacks, and still need something else to eat.

My point about food diaries is this: if you are trying to lose or gain weight they can be a useful tool. But, they can also be one that encourages obsession, particularly if you have a personality like mine, where you’re determined to be the best at what you’re doing. Since stopping keeping it, I’ve found myself with a new, more relaxed attitude to food. I do still meal plan, which is a different thing as it simply helps me ensure I have enough food in for the week, and doesn’t involve tracking to the letter what I’m consuming. Sometimes, I do have to jot down what I’ve eaten on my phone, to see that I’ve eaten enough, but over time I think even this will stop. Food diaries have a time and a place to be used, and I wholeheartedly recommend them if you’re working towards a goal of healthy weight loss/gain, but it all depends on how you’re using them. They have a time and a place. If you do think you’re becoming a bit obsessive though, or that you no longer need it, then get rid of that food diary.






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