Do You Keep a Food and/or Exercise Journal?
Two studies announced in the last few weeks have confirmed what most of us know already: if you want to lose weight or make yourself exercise regularly, there's almost nothing more powerful you can do than keep a written record.
The fact that it works for exercise as well as food highlights the fact it's not just about information--most of us can remember, if we take a minute to think about it, how many times we worked out this week. But a big part of journaling's effectiveness is the accountability that a written record demands.
Most folks love to write down that they ran five miles before breakfast, but they hate to write down that they had seven oreo cookies after dinner. The knowledge that your behavior will be recorded really can change it for the better.
And the information part can be powerful too. Holy crap, there are how many calories in a margarita and a plate full of nachos? Do I really grab that many handfuls of trail mix out of the cupboard in the course of an average Saturday afternoon?
Not surprisingly, food and exercise journaling works only to the extent you actually do it. The people who skipped days didn't do nearly as well as those who were consistent.
So: if this technique is so powerful and awesome, why isn't everyone who has dietary or fitness goals writing everything down?
The answer is simple:
BECAUSE FOOD AND EXERCISE DIARIES ARE A HUGE PAIN IN THE ASS.
Truly--when I've wanted to lose weight I've used them. And each time they worked really well. Yet I couldn't wait to stop.
Here are some of the reasons why they suck, even if they do work:
1. Weights and Measures:
Whether you are tracking calories, carbs, points, or the nutritional quality of the food you eat, you probably still want to know how much you're consuming. And in order to learn to estimate portion sizes with any degree of accuracy, you gotta start off by weighing and measuring. And what if you don't have ready access to food scales and measuring cups? Well then you have to consciously overestimate--otherwise, you will underestimate, because you are human.
Similar annoyances apply to exercise diaries, although they're not quite as odious. It can be a hassle estimating how many miles you ran or biked or swam. And can you count walking up and down the grocery store aisles? Do kegel exercises burn calories? Pedometers and map-my-run computer programs can help, but it is likely that the same way you underestimate food portions you will overestimate exercise, so plan accordingly.
2. What the Hell is In Here?
If you are a dedicated, energetic person who is super-conscientious about eating a healthy diet, then you probably prepare most of your own meals. In this case, there are plenty of sources of information in books and on the web that well tell you most of what you need to know in order to track what you're eating.
Or, at the opposite extreme, some people buy nothing but processed pre-packaged portion-controlled food with all the quantities already figured out. (Note: NOT recommended).
But many of us are in the middle: too busy/lazy to cook everything, but unwilling to subsist on microwaved frozen meals. So we buy a loaf of bread at the bakery rather than make it ourselves, or grab take-out Thai for dinner, or pick up a rotisserie chicken or some pasta and a "healthy-looking" tub of sauce from the deli.
Welcome to the Educated Guessing Game! And you know what? The more educated you are, the less fun this game is to play.
If a pre-made meal doesn't contain nutritional information, then how do you know how much sugar, salt, bad fats, refined grains, etc are in there? You have to assume the worst.
This is because the more terrible food is for you, the better it tastes.
People selling food don't care if you want to unclog your arteries or lose 50 pounds. They just want you to buy their stuff again. If they made it really healthy, it wouldn't be as tasty so you might not.
(It's not a coincidence that many people who start food diaries also start cooking a lot more of their meals at home).
3. Obsessive, Perfectionist Thinking
The ability to monitor and track your performance can be a force for Evil as well as for Good if you have perfectionist tendencies. Food and exercise journaling takes long-term goals (like getting to a healthy weight, or running a marathon) and turns them into daily sources of pride or shame.
This is of course awesome when you're doing really well.
But you won't always be doing well, and you need to be prepared for that.
I won't belabor this point because there's a whole post on perfectionism right there on the sidebar, and many of you have already read it. But if you're going to start a food or exercise diary you have to learn to cut yourself some slack and recover from lapses or the whole enterprise will become very unhealthy and will likely quit before you reach your goal.
4. Screwed Up Priorities
You may have all kinds of healthy nutritional goals--eating more whole foods, less processed crap, avoiding transfats or whatever. But it's hard to track a bunch of different goals, and what most people end up paying attention to at the end of the day is a number. How Many? Did I go over my Points or Calories or Carb grams or was I Good?
Likewise, you may have lots of fitness goals, like becoming stronger and improving your posture and increasing your flexibility and endurance--but if you're like most people, you're more likely to track your miles or calories or pounds lifted, and less like to note that you used proper form and did not hurt yourself, or that you remembered to stretch those hamstrings at some point in the day.
This data-driven, number-focussed approach can cause you to put all your energy into things you get "credit" for, and neglect those that don't "count." Which can be problematic when those things you're not tracking are actually really important.
5. It's Too Obnoxious To Keep Doing For the Rest of Your Life
Well, some people can manage but not many. That feeling of being watched and judged and evaluated, even if it's only by yourself, is far more oppressive than just a casual sense that "I need to watch what I eat and get enough exercise."
The goal, at least for me, of doing a food and exercise journal is to internalize those goals and turn them into healthy habits that don't need constant monitoring. For most people, becoming slave to some wire-bound notebook is just too damn unpleasant to do year after year.
But... um... for all that, they do actually do a good job of keeping you on track. Damn it.
So what are your thoughts on Food and Exercise Journals?