52 Healthy Habits: How to Self-Assess Your Food Journal

Welcome to the latest edition of 52 healthy habits, where we tackle a new habit each week in order to make incremental improvements to our lifestyle, week after week. You can follow along with my habits or do your own, the most important thing is that you are evaluating ways to improve your habits for an overall healthy lifestyle.

It's not about changing everything all at once, we already know that doesn't work. Choose one small thing and spend a week (or two) working on that new habit. After 52 weeks you won't believe the massive improvements to your life. 

If you've already tried the 'eat, workout and live perfectly' approach and that didn't work (hint: it hardly ever does) try the 'small habit' approach instead. It is a sustainable and healthy way to improve your healthy lifestyle. The truth is no matter how well you live there is always room for small improvements. What habit can you tackle next? This week we are talking about food journals. It's not enough to just keep a food journal, for the best results you need to learn how to self-assess your food journal. 

KEEP A FOOD JOURNAL

I recently wrote about how you don't need to count calories (if you don't want to). There are other ways to monitor intake that are just as effective and less hair-pull-out-y (that's a word, right?).

I do believe that keeping a temporary food journal can be very helpful in evaluating ways to improve your eating habits. If you write down everything you eat for three days you can get a pretty good idea of your regular eating habits. I would recommend Thursday through Saturday to start depending on your work or school schedule. Then do it once a month to monitor your progress.

This isn't about counting calories. In fact, you don't even need to record the calories (if you don't want to). Record what you eat and how much of each food (bonus points for how you were feeling when you ate). You could fill out a written journal, use Myfitnesspal (or other app) or, if you're a nerd like me, type it into a spreadsheet. The method or recording the data isn't as important as the evaluation of it. 

Just keeping track isn't enough. You want to keep track, then evaluate your journal for ways to make incremental improvements. This isn't about a whole diet overhaul. Choose one small thing and work to improve it. Practice your new habit for a week or two, then choose something else to improve. It's a slower process than you're probably used to, but it much more effective. How many times have you started a strict diet but eventually fell off the wagon after a few weeks or even days? I know I have. I just doesn't work. Even when it does work it's usually not sustainable, you eventually go back to your old habits and the weight comes back. 

Just for fun. Hah. Good thing is that you don't have to choose. Everthing in moderation, my friends.

Just for fun. Hah. Good thing is that you don't have to choose. Everthing in moderation, my friends.

Play the long game for long term results.

HOW TO SELF-ASSESS YOUR FOOD JOURNAL

One of the benefits of keeping a food journal is that you can review your eating habits and see what patterns emerge. If you determine that the pattern is not a healthy one, you can start to work to change it. Be as honest as you can be when keeping your journal. Don't try to eat "better" than usual on your journal days. It's not about judgement, it is just gathering data. Be sure to record everything, especially those hidden calories, like the sugar or cream in your coffee, that handful of chocolate from your co-worker's desk, any drinks or snacks. We often forget about these things, but at the end of the day or the end of the week, they can add up. 

Once you have your three day journal complete, it's time to evaluate it and look for ways to improve. 

LOOK FOR THE LOW HANGING FRUIT

Look for the low hanging fruit in your journal. These are the things that would be very easy for you to change. Sometimes we have habits that we aren't that attached to, they are just mindless habits. Maybe you eat pretzels with your lunch everyday, but you don't really enjoy them or even care. It would be easy to just stop eating the pretzels and eat an apple instead. You added a nutrient-dense food and removed a serving of processed carbs in one change.

Look for the easy changes, the easy wins. Some things may be harder to change and you can tackle those things when you're ready, start with the easy stuff. 

EVALUATE YOUR MACRONUTRIENTS

The macronutrients in foods are the protein, fats and carbohydrates. Most people need a balance of all three in order to eat a healthy sustainable diet. Look at each meal in your journal to make sure you have maximized your macro intake.

PROTEIN

Make sure you have a serving of protein at each meal. Protein can help you feel satiated and less hungry between meals. It is essential to build and maintain muscle. Look for ways to add lean proteins to each meal and snack. Check out this article I wrote on protein for some ideas.

CARBOHYDRATES

Carbs may have gotten a bad rap in the fitness industry, but the truth is carbs don't make your fat. Repeat after me: carbs don't make you fat. Evaluate if the carbs in your food journal are whole food choices in proper portions.

Evaluate your food journal for ways to improve your carb intake. Don't be afraid to add whole food or minimally-processed carbs, especially if you workout. Most people get enough carbs, that's not usually the problem. Work on improving the quality and portion sizes of your carbs. I wrote an article called How to cut carbs without cutting your sanity for more ideas. 

HEALTHY FATS

Carbs (and sugar) may be the villain these days, but when I was growing up fat was the bad guy. Fat makes you fat. Makes sense, right? Except it is not true. Consuming dietary fat does not increase body fat directly. Sometimes these beliefs are ingrained because that is what we were taught growing up. Look in your food journal and see where you can add proper portions of healthy fats like avocados, nuts, olive oil, dairy and fish or fish oils.

CONSIDER HOW YOU CAN MAKE HEALTHY SWAPS

Review your food journal for ways to make healthy swaps. Maybe you can add cinnamon to your coffee instead of sugar, maybe swap a processed snack for nuts, cheese or fruit. Evaluate your food journal for ways to improve the quality of the foods you eat by making healthy swaps..

  • Replace processed carbs with natural carbs
  • Replace processed fats with healthy fats
  • Replace processed sugars with natural sugars

CONSIDER WHAT YOU CAN ADD 

People often look at their food journals and stress about what they have to remove in order to be healthier. I advise my clients to focus on what they can add in order to be healthier. If you love your morning waffles, then take a tip from one of my nutrition clients, she adds protein powder to the waffle mix. She still gets her morning waffles, which she loves, but she added protein powder to improve the macronutrient intake of the meal. Is it the most perfect thing to eat? Probably not. Is it a big improvement to the meal to add protein? Absolutely. We are not striving for perfect, we are striving for better than before. 

Don't focus on what to take away. Look for ways to add protein to each meal. Look for ways to add colorful vegetables and/or fruit to each meal. Look for ways to add healthy fats. Take it slow and sometimes the less-than-healthy stuff falls away naturally because you are filling up on the good stuff. 

ASK YOURSELF, HOW CAN I MAKE THIS A LITTLE BIT BETTER?

It's not about perfection. Look at the foods you eat and ask yourself, how can I make this meal a little bit better? Maybe you are at a burger restaurant with friends. How can you make it a little bit better? Ask for a whole wheat bun? Remove the bun all together? Share the fries with a friend? Order a side salad instead of fries? Order water instead of soda. Your aim isn't perfection, just to be a little bit better. Every meal offers an opportunity to evaluate. Maybe it's replacing your soda with iced tea. Or your diet coke with water. Maybe it's eating plain yogurt with berries instead of flavored yogurt with a lot of added sugar. Make it a game with every meal. What can I do to make this just a little bit better? Not perfect. Not even a lot better. Just a little bit better.

DON'T BE TOO CRITICAL OF YOURSELF

The food journal is not intended to be about self-criticism or judgement. You should never feel bad about your journal, only use it as a tool to improve. 

My client likes to eat ice cream at night. I mean Loves with a capital L. Not willing to give up. You know what? That's ok. You know why? Because if you are not ready to change, you won't change. We start with eating the icecream s-l-o-w-l-y. Then we reduce the portion of ice cream. Then reduce the numbers of days eaten each week. Slowly over time. We focus on other ways to improve his diet throughout the day. I know someday he will be ready to swap that ice cream for a healthier option (how about cottage cheese with fruit and berries?) but today is not that day. We'll get there. We are taking a long term approach and it takes time. Do what you can do today. You'll experience a mental shift over time and what seemed impossible or too uncomfortable to change last week, maybe be something you are ready to tackle next week. 

Ready to get started? Download my three day food journal. Remember, it's not about changing everything all at once. Choose one thing to improve upon and work on it for a week or two. Then choose something else. Rinse and repeat. Over time you'll be a nutritional rock star. 

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If you are already subscribed, adding your email in order to download the 3 day food journal will not add you to the list twice. 

Coach Lea

I am a NASM personal trainer and RRCA adult distance running coach that specializes in strength training for runners. I offer in-person training in the Shredshed, online training and nutrition coaching. If you are interested in coaching, please contact me. Have questions? I'd love to help. 

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While I am a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach, I am not your personal trainer and nutrition coach. Since I don't know your exercise abilities, injury background or medical history, please see your doctor before beginning any new exercise or diet program. This is an opinion blog. No information in this blog is intended to be taken as medical advice or prescription. Please see your doctor and/or registered dietitian for any health concerns.