If your goal is to manage a chronic health condition, identify food sensitivities or lose weight, tracking what you eat—even for a short period of time—may be helpful.
“Tracking what you eat can bring awareness to what you’re consuming and how it makes you feel,” says Jeanice Skousen, MDA, RDN, LD, a dietitian at Piedmont Athens Regional. “It can also be helpful if you have a specific dietary concern or medical need. For example, you may track calories if you want to lose or gain weight, macros if you have diabetes or are following a specific meal plan, or sodium and fluid intake if you have heart failure and need to restrict these nutrients.”
Keeping a food journal can also help you be more mindful of your choices.
“A lot of times, we get into habits and aren’t aware of what we eat or drink, particularly in social settings,” says Skousen. “We may get into the habit of snacking at night or having a few drinks at a party. Tracking what we’re putting into our bodies can help us get back to what our bodies need.”
What is the best way to track what you eat?
It depends on your personal preference and lifestyle, says Skousen. There are two main options:
Notebook: Putting pen to paper can be helpful since you can easily show your food journal to a health care provider, such as your doctor or dietitian.
App: An app can track your calories, macronutrients, vitamins and minerals; allow you to set goals; scan barcodes of food containers; provide easy access to nutrient information from restaurants; and track other health factors like exercise, water intake and sleep. She suggests apps like MyFitnessPal and the USDA’s Start Simple with MyPlate.
Besides checking your food’s nutrition label, you can also use the following resources to determine the nutrients in your food, she says:
FoodData Central by the USDA
How to track your nutrition
Skousen says it’s helpful to look at your food intake over the course of a week to get an idea of your daily averages.
“This helps you avoid getting discouraged if you don’t meet your goal one day,” she says. “Unless you need to restrict your daily intake of a specific nutrient per your doctor’s recommendation, it’s your average intake over time that matters most.”
If you have food sensitivities or struggle with emotional eating, Skousen recommends writing down your emotional and physical feelings before and after each meal and snack.
“This can help you understand your hunger and fullness cues, sensitivities and triggers,” she says. “For example, you may notice that every time you eat spicy food, you get reflux, or after eating very salty foods, you get bloated. Tracking what you eat can help you identify small improvements to boost your health.”
How long should you track what you eat?
The length of time you track what you eat depends on your individual needs.
Skousen recommends tracking your nutrition for a short period of time unless your health care provider says otherwise.
“Most adults don’t need to track what they eat long-term,” she says. “Use tracking as a short-term tool to get in touch with your body’s nutritional needs and hunger and fullness cues. The body craves moderation and variety. Short-term tracking can help us get back on the same page with our bodies.”
While someone may want to continue tracking until they reach a goal, such as a certain amount of weight loss, others may only need to track for one week to bring awareness to their dietary health and any behaviors they may need to change, she explains.
How to avoid becoming obsessed with tracking what you eat
Skousen recommends periodically reevaluating your behaviors and feelings regarding food journaling. Ask yourself:
Is this causing me undue stress?
Does it foster a positive relationship with food?
Is it negatively impacting my quality of life?
Am I avoiding social activities because food is involved?
Am I constantly hungry, moody, tired or resentful?
Can I look at this data objectively without it affecting my self-worth?
“Tracking should allow for flexibility and compromise while avoiding guilt and shame associated with your results,” she says.
Check out more nutrition tips from Cancer Wellness experts.