Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Record Keeping to Change Your Perspective--And Your Eating

I'd LOVE to eat your food record, but I'm really not that hungry!
“My dog ate my food record.” “Oh, I left it at work.” “I know what I eat, I don’t need to write it down.” And finally, the very honest and most insightful comment I’ve heard, “I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because if I don't write it down, then maybe it didn't happen." This, perhaps, sums up why, in spite of knowing that food record keeping is recommended, it is often not done. But of course you know I can't just let it go at that! 

First, let me clarify. A food record, generally speaking, is a journal of what you ate including the quantity of food, and when you ate it. A valuable food record also includes some other critical information—your perceived hunger when you begin eating, your thoughts and your feelings—both physical and emotional. Noting where you ate is also quite useful, as we’ll discuss in a bit. Oh, and if food was consumed but eating disorder behaviors followed, that should be noted as well.

And calories? In my view, these have no place in your food record. “But don’t they count and impact my weight?” Absolutely. Yet counting them is not my idea of a healthy way to change your relationship with food and normalize your weight. We are trying to get out of your head—away from your over-analyzing what's acceptable to eat—and into your body, aware of its signals to eat and to stop eating. A goal of record keeping is to help you learn to rely on these signals so you can trust your body—I know you're not there yet—but this is a great way to start.

Why all the fuss about keeping a food record? Why do Dietitians like me recommend it and why do so many struggle against doing it? 

Accountability, compassion and shifting perspective

If you know that someone is going to be looking, you certainly think twice about what you eat. Now you may think that you already are painfully aware of what others think about your eating. And that recording only makes you obsess more about what you're eating. But writing it down in the way described below does something different. It allows you not to hyper focus on the meal you overate or the fact that you ate when you think you didn't need to. Rather it allows you to look at the bigger picture. Truthfully, this is where having another set of experienced eyes makes all the difference. 

Just saw this in NYC--can you imagine?!
Most of my clients find that my perspective on their eating  helps them to be less critical of their eating. They see that their overeating followed too long a span of time, or that their recurring hunger makes perfect sense, given the large volume of food devoid of adequate calories they were consuming.

Recording allows you to distinguish between physical hunger vs other eating triggers. Recognizing that you weren't hungry helps you to realize that something else contributed to your eating. Seeing that you were hungry but didn't eat, forces you to ask yourself what your intentions of restricting were.

Recording the food you've eaten also takes it out of the closet, so to speak. It legalizes eating. And hearing someone like a Dietitian react not in the way you'd expect—rather, acknowledging how delicious the brownie might have been, or that you only had 3 versus the whole package of cookies, or that you seemed to have needed to eat when you did and it was great that you entitled yourself to do so—get the idea? These messages help to counter the negative assumptions you have about your eating, and may help you feel more justified to eat in a balanced way. No, not the way you think you should be eating—full of restrictions and deprivation, but a more human way of enjoying food.

Would you sleep or do other things on your kitchen table?
(Ok, you don't need to answer that.)
Identifying the location you eat in is also quite important. Do you only eat when driving—where no one can see—not even you? Do you do a lot of eating in your bedroom late at night? Must you eat your food alone, out of the watchful eye of family members?

And what do you choose to eat? Do you limited your selection to diet foods, light in calories and in satisfaction? Do you include a range of nutrients including fats, carbohydrate and protein—or tend to shy away from one or more of these groups? Do you allow yourself to really eat what you like—not just to eat it, but to see it and take it in with all your senses?

Sure, there are some of you that feel so overwhelmed that recording feels like just another chore—which it is. And some of you feel you just can't get organized to remember to write things down. But largely most readers may prefer not to know—not to see it, not to acknowledge what you've eaten—at least on the days you didn't think you ate as you should have—and so you don't record.

If you're serious about shifting your relationship with food, get yourself a notebook you can keep in the kitchen. Or do you live with your smart phone at your side? Check out a fabulous free app, Recovery Record, which leaves off the nutrition details common to so many apps, but appropriately includes the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that so influence your eating, and how you feel about yourself. Then get started. And be sure to share this info with a professional experienced in this area—not the gym trainer who may have a slightly different way of seeing things.

And do start by moving your scale out of site. It is much more challenging to begin to trust yourself when you are being jerked around by that object on your bathroom or bedroom floor constantly.

Thoughts? Comments? I'd love to hear from you.


  1. Food logs are loaded for me, in many of the ways that you wrote about but also in other and likely more distorted ways. It is like a fight between my 'recovery minded self" and my "eating disordered self". My healthy self doesnt want to see words like exercised, purged, or took laxatives, in black and white on paper for anyone else to discover or for my team to read. I feel ashamed and writing it down forces me to acknowledge that. My eating disorder doesnt want there to be any food to write down and when I hand the page to my nutritionist with barely anything on it I feel so conflicted. Ed is showing off, cheering, while the small healthy part of me feels like it has lost a part of the battle. I worry that my team will see that I had a banana and think I am doing well when I know I am not and that I need them to know, too. Its all a trick and I dont know which one is the one to commit to. I know my team is smarter than ED, but writing it all down just highlights all the possible failures. I suppose this is part of seeing the truth.
    When I was in a better place with recovery food logs were my reality checks. I would often feel like I had eaten a whole pizza and then I would look at my log and see, nope, it was just two slices, all is fine. For that purpose it was so helpful to me. Perhaps I need to reframe the way I look at this process. Thanks for writing about this.

    1. Yes, being conflicted is to be expected. But if you are serious about shifting you have to move toward accountability--and looking at what you're doing is absolutely necessary.
      thanks for commenting.

  2. I have to keep a food log for my T, and I ABSOLUTELY HATE IT. I find it to be very annoying to have to write things down all the time. I really do a half-assed job of it, leaving off amounts and stuff because most of the time I have a few bites here and there. She says I "graze" too much and don't eat meals. I eat when I'm hungry. She says I have to add more food, fats, etc. and did recommend that I see a nutritionist, but I'm not up for that. I think food logs can definitely make someone more obsessive.

  3. Perhaps you need to ask if you are up for recovery in the setting you are in, or just going through the motions, given resistance to accountability and guidance from recording and seeing an RD, respectively. Yes, a food record can become obsessive--but I question whether there may be more benefits than consequences from this task.

  4. The biggest problem, and PTC made reference to this, is that writing down food is so annoying! Also there is a sort of Big Brother stigma to it, someone is watching, even if it is yourself. I could never record more than about a week without giving up. On the other hand, simply recording what food I bought was much, much easier but that scenario is only useful when you live alone.

    1. Annoying indeed--as is binging, and the physical and psychological consequences of restricting--quite annoying!
      As for the Big Bro. aspect, it might help if the focus is shifted to the non-food part of the recording. Really, you can even just start with recording the time, your hunger level, thoughts and feelings. You may feel less judged doing it this way, and it's still quite valuable.Then later, you may see the merit of adding the details of food intake.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Very good point, Lori- Ed behaviors are pretty annoying in their own right!! The devil you know? Maybe.

  6. I don't know. I don't really find it helpful to write everything I put in my mouth on a piece of paper. I think I'm going to be having a big break from therapy anyway, since i live in NYC and no one can get anywhere at this point in time.

  7. Food records have become so second nature to me that it doesn't make me obsessive and I don't have to think about it. No one can really be useful in helping me change my behaviors if I don't tell them what they are in the first place... (I have a lot more to say on this topic, positive things, but I'm in class now so should probably get off your blog and into my notes :-) ).

    1. Feel free to add to your comments when you have a moment!

  8. Lori, I don't know how you do it but your posts always seem to resonate with where I'm at or what I'm struggling with at precisely that moment. Thank you!

    I really don't like using the word 'hate' but it comes close to how I feel about doing a food diary. I'm recording intake and exercise for the upteenth time (it seems) in my trudge towards recovery and, while I thought I was doing so well over the summer, it would appear that I'm not.

    I don't like that I now have more of a sinking feeling when I'm hungry or I eat due to the fact that I'll have to write it up in addition to consuming something, but I know that that's less of a problem than the bad relationship I have with food and my body, so I do it, I share it with my therapist and fight so, so hard to change.

    Being able to review what I eat (something I find difficult to do) sometimes drives the thoughts of 'I've eaten too much' out my head when it would appear that I haven't. And actually being able to write out some of my scarier thoughts is helpful, though I may well have come to it independently of the food diary.

    All in all, I trust my therapist and if she says it's integral to recovery then I'll do it.

    Keep up the great blog, Lori – it's such a comfort.

    1. It's this acknowledgement of the impact of your restricting, your thoughts, your feelings that will ultimately move you forward, as the balance of eating disorder pros and cons start to shift.

    2. Thanks, Lori. I look forward to the shift, though it's hard to perceive any at the moment. One day too I hope to embrace the food diary in retrospect as an essential part of the big picture.

  9. Food records are fundamentally a good tool in recovery. I made a little list of the benefits of keeping a food record and it is pretty similar to the above listed benefits.
    The greatest benefit for me is that I find myself being more engaged and committed to recovery when I do keep a food record. This is because I am actively challenging the shame that comes with having someone 'see and judge' what I eat. It takes a lot of guts to take the risk of having someone evaluate your eating. I found it helpful to have you call it "acknowledging" rather than evaluating. The words we choose to use really matter!!
    Another benefit of keeping a food record on my list that I just added last week is that it helps me look at my food intake objectively. I had gone through a day where I felt like I had eaten like a pig (way to much) but then as I looked at it at the end of the day, I realized that I had in fact not been eating enough (and believe me I looked at it a long time trying to rationalize that I had in fact eaten too much). This was a HUGE moment for me. At that moment I gained the awareness that what I my subjective and objective realities can be very different. In addition, I gained a bit of trust in myself it was the first time I could see the 'objective' reality without having someone point it out for me.

  10. Great commentary from your readers...I always benefit/learn from their well as yours of course!..

    While beneficial...especially writing down the triggers/instigators of restrictive or binge episodes...actually recording the food consumed (ANY food seems superfluous or "too much" in a restrictive phase..)can make one feel like a monster..In the inevitable binge following a long restricting period just listing the lengthy, junk/calorie/quantity laden foods ingested is stupifying and horrific.

    Another unfortunate possibility of food the fear that someone in the family will actually FIND and read the journal...exposing how little or how much we can eat!!...Unfortunate as well is the attraction of deception...lying...writing down what we KNOW the ED team wants to see..with the appropriate covering of all food groups in appropriate quantities for our size, age-bracket..etc...I have done this..and I am NOT proud of it!..So, rather than be "judged"...or what I perceive to be a potential of judgement by to avoid journaling altogether!..I know this to be evasive my own realization to what is going on..but self-esteem issues...fear of being seen as less worthy...of treatment...of love...of respect...seem to dominate/take priority over "revelation" or honesty!...

    I would like to attempt food journaling again...Is there a possibility of obtaining a link to copy off your model of a food journal page?..I really like your version...which puts priority on the thought patterns and triggers for food choices.

    Well done Lori...excellent, thought-provoking post!

    1. Great points, but allow me to rebut!
      You could always journal on a computer with a secure password, or use the program described about--I'm adding their link--to prevent others from seeing it. Send me your email again (I think you have mine) and I'll forward you a copy of the food record.
      As for the bingeing--I typically tell my patients to simply put down a symbol when they binge--I am not looking to increase their feelings of shame by having them list all that they ate--much more important is learning what triggered it and how they moved on.