The Food Journal Ladder

July 7, 2010

Food Journals : a most effective weight-loss tool

For a long time now I’ve believed that one of the best, most effective diet tools out there is a food journal.  But for me, keeping a food journal can border on obsession, and puts way too much emphasis on self-policing and attention to basic daily behaviors for it to be a long-term thing.  But it’s a great tool to have around, and there are many different levels of food journals you can use.

The Food Journal Ladder :

Food Journal Ladder

Level 0 : “Healthy Eating”

At the “Healthy Eating” stage there is no tracking, no real awareness of self-control, just eating what you consider healthy because it’s  what you prefer & it’s become habit.  Sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s wickedly hard to do — one of those things where the ‘devil is in the details’ – it doesn’t take much to let this slip a bit and then a bit more and then you’re in a cupcake pit UNDER the ladder in the “free for all” eating space…

Level 1 : Eat with the intention of Losing

More than just “healthy eating” this also is a concerted effort to hold back enough volume and food choices so that you achieve a loss.  It builds on everything you already know about dieting.  Not for beginner dieters.  Sort of a more controlled area of ‘intuitive eating’ type of thinking – it’s ‘intuitive dieting’ where you know when you need that spoonful of peanut butter, but you also know to reach for celery or brush your teeth instead of eating at all…

Where I expect to live most of my life is pretty close to this level.  In my past when I’ve tried to move to “Healthy Living” it’s usually given way at some point to the “free for all”.  I’m now comfortable accepting that I’ll need a certain degree of self control forever – not at the same degree of restriction as I need to lose, but at enough restriction that I don’t regain.  Took me 40 years to suck it up that that’s the truth.

Level 2 :  Write it all down

This can be done with various levels of control.  You can write it ALL down, or you can write down just the meals that are problematic, just the special event, just the transgressions, just the weekends, etc.  At its most basic it’s just an awareness tool to make you aware of choices you make and accountable to reporting them to yourself.  Can do pen & paper, or electronic records of many types – Excel, word documents, emails to a buddy, your blog…

It’s efficacy is based on one of the great truths : Management attention drives behavior.

Management Attention Drives Behavior.

If you do this kind of a food journal you’ll eat less because you don’t want to report it afterward.  The same technique works for budgeting – the saying there is “if you track the pennies the dollars take care of themselves”.

Level 3 : Counting

This is the level where you watch a number (or more than one, depending on your diet plan).  Calories. Fat. Points. Carbs. Protein. Glycemic Index. Sodium, whatever.  You can do it on paper if you have a reference book with the values of your food (and you have a basic idea of serving sizes as a rule of thumb).  Today there are lots of good electronic tools too – dedicated software, many good websites (a lot of people use FitDay or LiveStrong’s Daily Plate, or Sparkpeople).  With PDAs years ago I loved having a program on my Palm, today I love having an app on my iPhone.  The tools don’t really matter, but the hard stop of a target number does make a difference.  When level 2 isn’t doing enough to reign things in, or when I do level 2 without much success I move up to level 3.  Today with the technology, levels 2 & 3 can be pretty close – sometimes it’s easier to track on an electronic program, and those programs automatically calculate the numbers (nutrition ones for most sites, points at WW).

Level 4 : Weigh, measure, count, track : the full enchilada

At the highest level is where I put the actual weighing & measuring.  It’s more precise than the other levels but it’s more involved, takes more mental energy and might create extra stress if you are worrying about an extra 3 Cheerios that you ate.  On the other hand, nothing makes things clearer than measuring 3/4 of a cup of cereal into the bowl & then measuring out the milk & realizing that the quantity you’ve been eating daily from that bowl is probably 3 times “one” serving… I save this one for when I really think I’m doing things right but need that slap upside the head.  It’s a good tool but a painful one.  For me at least it uses up a huge amount of energy & makes me nuttier than a fruitcake in no time flat, so for me it is classified as the “big guns” – I bring it out pretty rarely.

When do I move it up a level?

For myself, I consider my diet to need more attention & control when :

  • I’m in a fairly out-of-control situation (usually due to work, but can be also on vacation or other things).  Life stress is an opportunity to manage your weight (and eating) better.  I know a lot of people who gain during stress (and I have many times) but sometimes it’s really useful to realize that what you eat may be one of the few areas you can control in life when other things go crazy, and at such times keeping closer tabs on the food intake by moving up a level or two in the food journal ladder can be a good coping technique for stress.
  • I’m bound & determined to get somewhere with my weight loss : such as working for a specific goal, or several weeks of plateau that need breaking, or being in a focused period of time (such as right now, with just having a few weeks before our vacation)

Applying the Food Journal Ladder to myself :

As of this week, I’m moving up to level 3, and tracking everything I eat on the iPhone.  I’m a believer in babysteps (small goals) so I’m only planning it for one week right now.  We’ll see next Monday if I think I should continue or not.

I’ve also been struggling with accepting the whole tracking and food journaling thing these past weeks.   A few weeks back I managed to make one clever positive association by putting together tracking what I ate and the various pleasures of my day into one Level 1 tracking.  Still, mainly I’ve struggled with doing Level 1 over the past 2 weeks, and I think I need the focus right now.  These months before August are a big opportunity to get back to the weight I was at before the IVF regain, and I’m riding that motivation train for all I can right now.

Already I’ve seen some benefits of the tracking.  I like that the tracking tool is always with me (that iPhone never leaves my side).   I like that I have a running total and I have an idea of how much margin I have come dinner.  Today I skipped dessert because of it.  Yesterday I refrained from a second pass at the lunch buffet because of it.  No matter how many years ago you started dieting, it’s always a wakeup call to see those numbers actually adding up, and see the small unthinking choices and the impact that can add up.

Moving down a level or two

I’m all about keeping my weight loss approach low stress.  I live a fairly high-stress life, and I don’t have the mental bandwith to worry much about my diet on top of it.  So the food journal at it’s various levels of intensity is a TOOL for me, but not a way of living.  I bring it out and apply it when I can, when it helps manage stress, but not when it will create it.   Keeping an electronic journal when I travel can be hard, especially when I’m visiting different countries & it’s not my routine set of foods & I can’t find food items in the software.  At those moments I know that I need to move down a level.  When the weight loss is routine & I’ve re-learned what a ‘serving size’ looks like or was reminded of the impact of having that hunk of cheese while preparing dinner on my daily totals, well, that’s when I start to think about dropping back to Level 1.

And the tool goes back in the box, ready for next time

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