We all hear it. Everyone wanting to lose weight or gain weight or eat more healthily hears it. Food Log. Right out of the gate, before you even put that first day to a new, better you on the calendar, you hear it. You have to keep a food log. Of the 3 habits people who have lost and kept off significant amounts of weight report , food logging is number one.
And I can’t argue with that. Writing down every morsel of food every day or snapping a picture is essential to seeing the patterns of your eating. All good programs require you to do this and should. Just the act of writing down and looking at what you’ve eaten will bring a more mindful quality to your eating.
And logging will often be a first step to taking control of your relationship with food. There’s no way to deny those 3 spoonfuls of peanut butter eaten right out of the jar when it’s looking up at you from a piece of paper or out at you from your computer screen.
What that food log doesn’t tell you, though—and what becomes essential as you try to journey to healthier eating—is why you ate those 3 spoonfuls of peanut butter. Was it 5 o’clock and you hadn’t eaten since 11am and knew dinner was still an hour away? Did you open the cupboard to grab spices for that night’s meal and the peanut butter just looked so good, you wanted “just a taste”? Did 2am roll around and you were still playing Game of Thrones on the computer and were tired but just wanted to go one more level? Or did you just eat them, maybe without even thinking much about it. Until you had to write it down. So there it is on your food log but do you understand it? Is that the whole story? And when 2am rolls around again, will you look at the food log next day and see “peanut butter 3 T” once again?
Food isn’t just a thing, names and amounts; food is a story. What you eat each day isn’t just a what but a when, where, who with and why? And as with all stories, the deeper you dig, the more interesting the story becomes, full of conflict, plot twists, unexpected conclusions and characters. Food is a story written over time, as well. A food log tells you what you ate on a specific day, perhaps how much, maybe even a note telling you how hungry you were. But is doesn’t tell you whether the foods eaten that day were the ones you ate while strolling down a beach three years ago with your ex or the ones your father made you when you were sick.
For me, those foods given as a child, given with a spirit of nurturing and healing, recur over the years with reliable consistency. When I was not feeling well, whether I had a cold, the flu, or an upset stomach (which as an introverted, shy child was often), my father would make me a plain hamburger and a cup of tomato soup. Bland food, appropriate to physical ills but also to angst. There was nothing challenging about this simple meal and that was the point. And now, in my 60s, when I’m not feeling great or when I’m feeling anxious or sad, it’s the meal I most request when my husband says “Dinner?”
On a food log, this meal would look like:
Ground beef 4oz.
Hamburger bun 1
Canned tomato soup 8oz
But in my journal, the same meal might look like this:
Ground beef 4oz.
Hamburger bun 1
Canned tomato soup 8oz
I was miserable all day, wanting/notwanting to get work done, needing to move yet caught in that state of complete ennui that happens at the end of February, regardless of the weather. And I wanted to eat but knew I didn’t want to think about it either. When B asked “Do you want pasta for dinner?”, my grumbled answer probably wasn’t very encouraging to him. Yeah, pasta might have made sense; we could have used a vegetarian meal right now; I didn’t “need” the sat fat that meat would bring. And I should have been eating lots of veggies, but…And he followed up with “burger, maybe? Tomato soup?” And I could feel the satisfaction wash over me. “Yeah, small burger; cup of soup. Sounds perfect.” I was being cared for again and it felt good.
While I might have looked back at the log and seen the “what” and maybe even felt guilty about it, the journal would explain the story. And understanding the story would help me place that meal in a context, look at it and myself with the kindness deserved. And if this story was repeated day after day, I would be able to take that context of time and think “why do I need this so much right now? It’s providing comfort, but is there more I should be doing for myself so that I’m not needing this particular meal for comfort? Is there another way to tell the story?”
But Won’t This Take So Much Time?
Yes, if you did this for every single meal, every snack, every bite, it could take a great deal of time. But do you need to be this detailed about everything? Food is a story but not every story is interesting, evocative, explanatory or in need of being told. Let’s say, for instance, that you eat the same breakfast every morning because you know you have X amount of time to get out the door and no time or patience to think, cook, or even taste. That breakfast can go into your food log naked and plain, 99% of the time. Or maybe not get written down at all after the first two weeks of keeping your log. If you always eat a carton of plain greek yogurt and a banana before you head out the door, why even note it beyond the initial decision that this is your breakfast go-to and why. Oh, you want it to be listed as part of your daily calorie or point count? I’ll talk about the problem with calorie counting later but if you insist…How about just copy/paste that breakfast in every day? There it is, neatly recorded, consigned to posterity and you’re out of there.
But what about that day you don’t eat the same breakfast? Wednesday morning: you oversleep; drop your mascara in the toilet—open; discover the cat has thrown up on the shoes you were going to wear. This morning even popping open the yogurt carton and peeling the banana is too slow, too much effort. So you cut through the coffee shop drive-thru on your way to work and, despite the yogurt and fruit parfait you know they offer and that would most closely match your go-to, you get a mocha and call it ok because the calorie counts are going to look pretty much the same, right?
Maybe. But is the story going to look the same? Not even close. And because this is that 1%, the one off that tests the rule, laying the mocha out there naked on the food log isn’t going to tell you anything. Maybe you feel a little guilty, knowing that it really isn’t the equivalent, but by the end of the day you’ve moved on. And moving on is a good thing. Why beat yourself up about one day that’s different? That’s not a cool idea. However, you also haven’t learned anything about the “why, where, how” of your story. So when Wednesday repeats itself—and it will, sometimes on Monday, sometimes on Thursday—you’ll groove through the same story again with the same ending.
If you’ve journaled that breakfast, if you’ve thought about the conflict, the outcome, the disappointment, the anger and “drama” of the story of The Wednesday Mocha, you may meet the next Wednesday able to rewrite the tale, saying “let’s end the story today by getting the breakfast that seems most like what I would have had at home. Or, no, you know what? This morning sucked. And most mornings don’t. So, maybe I’ll treat myself to the breakfast sandwich. Yeah, it might have a few more calories but it will have that egg I never have the time to cook and it will be hot and yummy and it’ll make me happy.” Going beyond the food log not only gives you insights, it gives you options.