Do Food Journals Work? Learn How to Make them Work for You
Nearly three decades of academic, peer-reviewed literature have demonstrated, time and again, that tracking your dietary intake can substantially help you lose weight and meet your nutrition goals.
There’s just one problem.
Nobody does it.
At least, not continuously. And if you’ve ever tried one, you probably know the reasons. As one researcher commented, “Data entry is a fine job...if you get paid to do it.” They’re painfully tedious, time-consuming, inaccurate, and difficult to maintain. One study found that less than 3% of people who downloaded a free diet-tracking app continued to use it after one week.
Why Do Food Journals Work Poorly in the Real World?
Studies have investigated the reasons why food journal users decide to use, and not use, routine diet-tracking. Here are the major reasons. If you’ve tried one before, chances are you also fit into one or more of these categories.
It’s Too Tedious
The general complaint of tedium usually tops the list for complaints around food journaling and food diaries.
We eat a lot! Generally, we eat at least three meals a day, and snack along the way. Lest we forget what we consumed, we need to login to our apps, search for an find the food, quantify how much we ate of it, for each ingredient.
We need to do this for everything we eat everyday? And if we forget, then the whole day’s data becomes much less useful? It’s no wonder this is the primary cause for quitting food journals.
Going hand-in-hand with tedium, is the time-cost. Food journal apps have dramatically reduced the time associated with written journals for documenting and calculating various food intake metrics, but it still requires quite a bit of time after every meal, every day, to maintain this habit. It’s also one of the top-cited reasons for quitting.
Which Food? And How Much of it?
Food journaling requires you to look up nutrition content of ingredients from databases stored within the app or somewhere else online. These tools have certainly gotten better over time.
But sometimes, it is difficult to know which food you have based on the database entry for those kinds of foods. A misselection can hurt the accuracy of your documentation. Plus, not even identical foods are created equal.
Then, you must document the quantity of each food you ate. When you are eating processed foods with a nutrition label, this is much easier to estimate.
But when you prepare your own meals, or eat prepared meals, it becomes very difficult to know how much food you prepared and ate. One cup? Three-quarters of a cup? This difficult often leads to trouble with food journalers.
And what are meals from restaurants, a friend’s house, or your coworkers made of?
Food journaling requires you to log all of your meals. That includes meals eaten out at restaurants and meal prepared by friends and family. But how do you know the contents of these meals?
Without asking, it is nearly impossible to know. And asking can feel awkward. If you eat out frequently, this can really impair your food journaling practice.
Not Remembering Everything You Ate
What did you eat for dinner yesterday? For many of us, this seemingly simple question can draw a blank. Let alone, what did you have for dinner two days ago.
Without logging every meal, while you are eating it (which most of us will probably not do), our memory starts to become the harbinger of inaccuracy. Then, you need to document how much you ate, too. Forgetting these pieces of information undermine the whole process. And if the day’s data becomes less useful, it becomes easy to drop the process altogether.
Quitting the Habit
Sometimes you remember to log your meal, but you forgot exactly what you ate. Other times, you might simply forget to log the meal entirely!
This happens quite frequently for many users. And when your day is only a patchwork of food logging, the data becomes much less useful. Calorie counts, macronutrient ratios, micronutrient thresholds...they all remain inaccurate and can hurt the day’s data as well as any long-term trends you are hoping to monitor. This unsurprisingly leads to quitting entirely.
The Act of Journaling Can Feel Obsessive
Food is a central component to a happy and healthy life. We dine with friends and family for nourishment of bodies, but also for spending time with loved ones.
Chronic food journaling, for some, begins to impair their relationship with food in a negative way. The need to remember your meals in rigorous detail, and constantly log each item multiple times a day, day-in and day-out, can start to feel obsessive. Furthermore, it can start to lead to a decline in the quality of your food-related life (which can directly impact your overall life satisfaction).
Feeling Guilty about Logging Unhealthy Foods
Just as it can be difficult to admit to a real-life nutritionist you’ve binged on cake last Saturday, food journaling can invoke a similar guilt. Whether it is conscious or subtly sub-conscious, we tend to want to omit (or downsize) logging of foods we deem to be unhealthy. Again, undermining the accuracy of your food journal and your own dietary goals.
Lack of Discretion
Many of us don’t feel comfortable logging our food unless we are alone. Sometimes, we simply may not want others to know we are tracking our diet. It may spur a conversation about weight or habits we simply don’t want to bring up and discuss.
But we often eat in the company of others. Friends, family, coworkers. And if you don’t log your food during, or shortly after, a meal, it is difficult to remember everything.
In addition, it can be awkward to ask a friend or coworker about the ingredients of a home-cooked dish to log the meal properly.
How Do Food Journals Work then?
If there are so many reasons why people quit food journals, do food journals work at all? How are there so many success stories out there, and how do peer-reviewed research articles keep showing that they work?
In short, they work when people use them. Many people quit due to the reasons shown above. But, when food journals do get used, they work. Here’s why.
We Are Bad at Estimating our Intake
Diet-tracking works, in part, because studies routinely show that we are woefully inept at estimating our nutritional intake. He eat many more calories than we think we consume by a wide margin. We often estimate calories based on the size of a dish, and calorie density is completely ignored from the mental equation.
On a more granular level, we do the same for various nutritional components as well. For example, we underestimate sugar intake largely because we aren’t aware of how much sugar is packed into our foods.
Clever studies from Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab have documented this discrepancy in many ways. For example, we tend to eat until our plate is empty, right? Well, Dr. Wansink and his lab created a bowl of soup that was literally bottomless. Connected to a secret mechanism that allowed the bowl to be continuously refilled unbeknownst to the participant, they consumed, on average, 73% more soup.
Even moviegoers, when provided with 14-day old, stale popcorn, at 38% more when it was served in larger containers despite a universal agreement that the taste was awful. These studies, and others, have led him to aptly name this behavior Mindless Eating.
This is a large reason why food journals work. By gaining a better awareness of the foods you eat throughout the day, and the quantities of foods you eat throughout the day, many can benefit from the process to moving consumption into the realm of mindful eating.
This can also help build intuitive eating habits, where we gain a better understanding of what we should eat, when we should eat, and how much we should eat.
Changing Habits is Difficult
Not only does the enlightenment that comes from identifying your nutritional intake help you orient your consumptive behavioral patterns, but the frequency and longevity of tracking correlates to increased and sustained health outcomes. So if you track intake more frequently, you lose more weight. And if you track your meals for longer, you sustain weight loss and healthier consumption patterns for a longer time.
A study in behavior research identified the primary drivers for understanding how do food journals work. They found,
96.7% of respondents agreed that diet/nutrition apps increase their motivation to eat a healthy diet.
86.2% of respondents agreed that diet/nutrition apps increased their ability to eat a healthy diet.
91.7% of respondents agreed that diet/nutrition apps increased their confidence in adhering to a healthy diet.
94.4% of respondents increased the use in goal-setting.
And most importantly, 95.4% increased their intake of healthy foods and 95.5% increased their consistency in eating healthy foods.
Conclusion: So, Do Food Journals Work?
Yes, food journals do work. They can help you collect personal nutrition data, better understand your consumptive patterns and dietary trends, build motivation and confidence, and help drive better dietary patterns and overall nutritional health.
Like dieting, they fail if they are only used as a short-term measure. A dietary reprieve is rarely the solution. A new, positive lifestyle that is sustainable is more effective.
But there are many difficulties surrounding persistent food journal use. Drastically reducing the effort to track and understand your own dietary intake patterns is a good start.