Appetite Monitoring and 5 Ways to Know if it’s Time to Ditch the Food JournalJanuary 11, 2021
Who loves keeping a food journal? Anyone?
If you are like many repeat dieters, you might be groaning right now.
Food journaling often feels like a should for many reasons. It is recommended by experts and you probably had at least some success in the past if you journaled diligently.
But is it really helping you achieve your goals?
Today’s article will help you find the answer.
The Pros and Cons of Food Journaling
Like most things, there is not a one-size-fits-all recommendation.
We are going to review what we know about food journaling and answer the following questions:
- Why is food journaling recommended? How can it help me?
- When does food journaling do more harm than good?
- How can I tell if I need to throw out my food journal and try something different?
What is Food Journaling?
Also called self-monitoring, food journaling refers to writing down everything that goes into your mouth.
Typically, you have a calorie or nutrition goal you are aiming to stay under. For example, you might be aiming to eat less than 1500 calories per day.
Journaling can be done on paper or using a free tool like MyFitnessPal.
The Evidence Behind Food Journaling
Many weight loss programs include food journaling because it does work, at least in the short-term.
Food journaling is associated with weight loss over the short-term (Burke, Wang & Sevick, 2011). However, it is important to note that much of the research is done with Caucasian women and therefore less is known about food journaling for other groups.
This association makes sense, as we know that measuring a behavior tends to make us more aware and accountable and can help move us in the direction of our goals. This is true for monitoring one’s weight (Butryn, Phelan, Hill & Wing, 2007) or tracking physical activity (Compernolle et al., 2010).
The Problem of Self-Monitoring Over the Long-Term
If tracking behavior makes us change, shouldn’t we all be doing it?
When we look at long-term weight loss outcomes, it is less clear how much food journaling helps.
One problem is few people want to keep up a food journal over the long-term. Would you want to monitor every morsel that goes into your mouth for years? I haven’t met many people who would.
It doesn’t take a research study to tell us that keeping a food journal takes a lot of effort. Given that self-control is a limited resource (Muraven, Tice, & Baumeister, 1998), you could argue that our keeping a food journal day-after-day, week-after-week is likely to drain you. Your effort might be better spent elsewhere, like on meal planning and preparing healthy foods.
What Are People Doing that Lose Weight Over the Long-Term?
What about people who lose weight and keep it off long-term? Are they food journaling?
It was challenging to answer this question in the research because tracking whether participants kept food journals beyond 1-2 years would be a major undertaking.
However, in the National Weight Control Registry, where participants who have lost at least 30 lbs and kept it off for at least one year, food journaling has not been identified as a strategy used by these individuals who maintain weight loss over 10 years (Thomas, Bond, Phelan, Hill, & Wing, 2014).
Interestingly, there is some indication that weight loss maintenance might become easier over time for people who are able to do it successfully (Klem, Wing, Lang, McGuire, & Hill, 2000). After leading many NIH trials focused on behavioral weight loss, I question whether many could realistically keep up food journaling for years and years, given the level of fatigue with journaling that typically occurs.
None of these statistics mean that food journaling causes weight gain or isn’t helpful to some long-term, but it makes you question whether journaling is truly a long-term weight management solution.
Problems with Food Journaling
There are also some other problems with food journaling when done for an extended period of time:
- It can create feelings of restriction. This is particularly true when you have a certain calorie goal, or even just a set amount in your mind that you think you “should” be having. What happens when you hit your 1500 calorie limit halfway through your dinner and you are still hungry? Restriction of eating often backfires and makes us even hungrier (Crum, Corbin, Brownell, & Salovey, 2011; Polivy, Coleman, & Herman, 2005; Zunker et al., 2011).
- It can cause you to eat more just to follow the “guidelines.” What if your plan tells you to have 28 points each day, but you have all of your meals and snacks and you are satisfied, but have only had 25 points? If you are a rule follower and trying to do the program “right” you might eat when you aren’t hungry, which can become problematic if it becomes a regular habit and also gives the idea that your body does not know how much you need, this weight loss program rule does.
- It does not account for normal fluctuations in metabolism and hunger. In a given day, week, or month, it is expected that you would burn different amounts of calories per day, based on factors like activity level, stress, and hormone fluctuations. There is no way an external calorie goal can accurately adapt to this.
- It promotes an external focus, which can make it harder to listen to your body’s internal signals. For repeat dieters, this can become a vicious cycle. The more they rely on external rules and guides, the less they listen to their body, and therefore the less they learn about what their body truly wants and needs, and the more reliant they feel on the external guides. This is part of the reason why not food journaling can be so scary, as they truly don’t trust their body anymore. But this is the same reason it can be so very important to try a new way.
- It can trigger thinking patterns that aren’t helpful, like the diet mentality. The diet mentality describes a style of thinking that is focused on external rules, should statements (“I shouldn’t have that, that isn’t a good food”), and has little to do with what our bodies really need or the signals it gives us. The diet mentality is a problem for long-term weight management, as it means you would need to require long-term on rules and should statements, which for most people does not sound enjoyable, nor sustainable.
- We might not be able to track the internal and external. External rules can override even the best internal motivation. For example, when we tell kids to eat something because “it will make you strong AND it’s tasty,” the external motivator (“it will make you strong”) overrides the internal (“it’s tasty”) and the kids eat less of the healthy food and rate it as less tasty (Maimaran & Fishbach, 2014). This suggests that food journaling with external rules (e.g., a calorie goal) could make it very challenging to listen to internal signals, such as hunger and fullness.
The Case for Appetite Monitoring
While long-term weight loss maintenance numbers are unimpressive (Lowe, Kral, & Miller-Kovach, 2008), appetite monitoring offers a promising alternative.
Mindfulness-based interventions have been shown in many studies to improve binge eating and emotional eating (Katterman et al., 2014).
Appetite Awareness Training (Craighead & Allen, 1995) is often included in these programs, where specific guidance is given on how to become aware of hunger and fullness signals.
Although weight loss is not guaranteed with these methods, there is good evidence that appetite monitoring can help people get off the dieting roller coaster and improve their relationship with food over time.
Is Food Journaling Ever a Good Idea?
Though this article has been mostly arguing against food journaling so far, below are some instances of when it can be useful.
- You have little or no experience tracking your eating. Tracking any behavior is often the first step to changing it so if you haven’t given this strategy an honest try, it might be worth it. If you don’t have a lot of nutrition knowledge, or even if you do but it’s been a while, I often encourage people to food journal diligently for a few weeks and use it as an opportunity to become a “student of your nutrition.” No judgment; just observing and learning.
- Things are all out of whack. If your eating pattern is all over the map and you don’t have a clear sense of what you are currently doing, tracking for a few weeks can be a helpful tool to take an honest look at your patterns and make a plan moving forward. This can also be helpful during times of transition. For example, you used to work 3rd shift and you are switching to 1st shift, or you are going from summer mode to school mode in the fall and the routine has changed. Even a few days of planning ahead and journaling might be useful in gaining awareness and clarifying the new routine that will work best.
- When done in advance. Food journaling can help you do some meal planning. I often say unless you have a personal chef or all your meals delivered by a meal service, you are probably going to need to allocate some mental energy to planning your meals. Although this takes work, it can truly be valuable and can help make healthy eating easier and more automatic.
- When you can truly use journaling to become aware, without beating yourself up. People with a long history of dieting often struggle with this so it’s crucial that you are honest with yourself about this. It’s possible to get to the point where you can truly use food journaling as a tool when they are curious about their eating patterns. However, long-time dieters will often convince themselves they can do it without negative consequences while secretly trying to use it as a tool to help them restrict and lose weight. Be honest with yourself, and work hard to avoid food journaling if it will just get you caught back up in the diet cycle, since this will never serve you long-term.
5 Ways to Know if it’s Time to Ditch the Diet Journal
Is it time to take a break, maybe forever, from food journaling? Below are 5 signs it may be time to ditch the diet journal for good.
You can recite the nutrition information of most foods and drinks in your sleep. If you are already painfully aware of how many calories and how much protein the common foods you consume are, you probably are not going to get much more out of long-term food journaling. You may just be using it as a method to try to “keep yourself in check” and this restriction mindset typically will backfire and make you feel more hunger, cravings, and/or binge or emotional eating.
You have tracked your nutrition diligently for at least 3 months. That’s a lot of work. Good job, you. You have probably gotten some awareness and likely have gotten the benefits you will get, at least for now. It is probably time to try something different and focus your mental energy elsewhere.
You have ever experienced binge eating, emotional eating, or feeling addicted to certain foods. Given that food restriction can increase cravings and binge eating, food journaling that feels restrictive in any way can really backfire. Although food journaling can seem appealing because it worked temporarily in the past and feels like a way to keep yourself in check, it is unlikely to be part of the long-term solution.
You are really struggling to get rid of the diet mentality. If you have dieted on and off throughout your life, struggle with all-or-nothing thinking about eating (e.g., “I did bad today, I’ll get back on track tomorrow”) it’s extremely hard to food journal without activating old unhelpful mindsets about eating. It’s important to be honest with yourself about whether this tool is really helping you or making things worse.
Your food environment is in pretty good shape. Do you generally have healthful foods available and keep higher calorie more tempting options out of sight for the most part? If not, that is likely impacting your hunger and cravings. The desire to food journal might partially be an attempt again to keep yourself in control, but instead you might want to consider making other changes to your environment that take less self-control and make things easier on you long-term.
If Not Food Journaling, What Should I Do?
If the idea of giving up your food journal makes you anxious, it might help to give yourself some structure. Tracking hunger and satisfaction is a great way to become more aware of your body’s signals and improve your relationship with food (Katterman et al., 2014; Kristeller et al., 2014).
If you want to ditch the food journal but need some extra guidance, you can with my guide that provides step-by-step advice to get you started on a positive path. This guide gives you what you need to lay the foundation for a positive relationship with food and increased control and empowerment over your body and your habits.
- Burke, L. E., Wang, J., Sevick, M. (2011). Self-Monitoring in weight loss: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111, 92-102.
- Butryn, M. L., Phelan, S., Hill, J. O., & Wing, R. R. (2007). Consistent self-monitoring of weight: A key component of successful weight loss maintenance. Obesity, 15, 3091-3096.
- Compernolle, S., DeSmet, A., Poppe, L. et al. (2019). Effectiveness of interventions using self-monitoring to reduce sedentary behavior in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 16, 63. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-019-0824-3
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- Kristeller, J., Wolever, R. Q., & Sheets, V. (2014). Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) for binge eating: A randomized clinical trial. Mindfulness, 5, 282-297.
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- Maimaran, M., & Fishbach, A. (2014). If it’s useful and you know it, do you eat? Preschoolers refrain from instrumental food. Journal of Consumer Research, 41, 642–655.
- Muraven, M., Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Self-control as a limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(3), 774–789.
- Polivy, J., Coleman, J., & Herman, P. (2005). The effect of deprivation on food cravings and eating behavior in restrained and unrestrained eaters. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 38, 301-309.
- Thomas, G., Bond, D. S., Phelan, S., Hill, J. O., & Wing, R. R. (2014). Weight-loss maintenance for 10 years in the National Weight Control Registry. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 46, 17-23.
- Zunker, C., Peterson, C., Crosby, R. D., Cao, L. et al., (2011). Ecological momentary assessment of bulimia nervosa: Does dietary restriction predict binge eating? Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49, 714-717.
ABOUT THE AUTHORShawn Hondorp, PhD, ABPP, is a board certified clinical health psychologist who works in private practice in Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Hondorp earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Drexel University and completed her fellowship at Rush University Medical Center. Her passion is translating science-based information about eating behavior, weight management, and wellness into actionable steps people can use to improve their life. Her website The Psychology of Wellness is dedicated to this mission. Read more articles by Dr. Hondorp!