How to keep a food diary

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Picture this: you’re tired, you’re sick, and now you’re faced with finding out what your specific food and/or environmental triggers are that are making you feel this way. You may have IBS or a similar digestive issue. What?! How is that fair? You’ve been told to keep a food diary! But how do you do that? What’s the best way of going about it? You really have no idea.

Fear no more: here is our Complete Guide to Keeping a Food Diary.

THE DAILY PAGE

There are 8 individual sections of the daily page to fill in:

  • Mood
  • Sleep
  • Food
  • Symptoms
  • Stress
  • Drinks
  • Medicine
  • Exercise

Plus a small daily notes section for you to log any additional information that you’d like to capture.

Mood and Sleep
Tracking begins when you wake up: take a moment to enter your mood, your sleep quality and how long you slept.

Food and Symptoms
As you go through your day, eating and drinking, carry your diary with you and note down:

- What time you ate
- What you ate
- How much of it

Note the individual ingredients in a dish as far as possible, until you have eliminated the ones that are problematic; this will make the Monthly Page much easier for you to fill in.

If you experience any notable symptoms (e.g. bloating, stomach ache, headache, tiredness, nausea, reflux, etc.), write the time you experience them and what you experience.

Try to be as precise as possible. If you’re in pain, where is it and what does it feel like? Being very specific will also help your doctor pinpoint problems.

Note your bowel movements discretely using the Bristol Stool Scale (see this blog post for more info).

Stress
Stress is a common occurrence. And while not all stress is bad for us, chronic/long-term stress can have a negative physical impact on our bodies.

Learn to recognize your stressors by keeping notes in this section: write down anything (however small you think it may be) that may be adding to your stress levels. For example, you might note the hours you worked, or conflicts, tensions or worries that have arisen during the day. Maybe you have a Big Meeting coming up and it’s been on your mind. Perhaps you’re nervous about attending an event. Whatever it might be, by learning to recognize stress when it arises, you give yourself the chance to find healthy ways of managing it, and reducing its impact on your body.

Drinks
When we think about keeping food diaries we may focus on the food and forget about the liquids we do – or don’t – put into our bodies. What you don’t drink can be just as important as what you do. Note down how many glasses of water, cups of tea, takeaway coffees, pints… whatever you drink in a day, it should go in this section.

Medicine
If you’re taking medicine, whether it’s a prescription, over-the-counter medication, or a daily vitamin, note this down too.

Exercise
Exercise is without doubt one of the greatest things we can do for ourselves and our wellbeing - especially for people with IBS. A gentle yoga routine, for example, can help IBS sufferers no end by calming down the nervous system through rhythmic breathing and helping to expel wind from the body through twist poses. But don't worry if your exercise wasn't a proper "workout" - note any opportunity you’ve had to get active during the day, from walking to work to running after the kids. It’s all important.

Notes
This is a section for you to capture any information about your day, lifestyle or health that we haven’t already provided a space for. For example, others have customized it by adding in a daily gratitude practice, noting minutes meditated, their period cycle or their current weight.  

THE MONTHLY PAGE

While the Daily Page is the workhorse of the Food Diary, the most important part of the system is to take ten minutes at the end of a month to fill in the daily page.

Good Days/Bad Days
You may want to fill this section in as you go throughout the month, or you can use the Mood section of the Daily Page to remind you which were ‘good’ (symptom free!) days, and which were the ‘bad’ days. This section is customizable – you may want to create your own way of tracking these, but a simple way to do so is to rate the days from 1 (bad) to 5 (good) and enter the numbers in the boxes. From there you’ll answer three questions:

  • THIS MONTH I FOUND
  • NEXT MONTH I WILL
  • POTENTIAL TRIGGERS

THIS MONTH I FOUND
Here is where you sit down and take a few minutes to go through your previous 31 days and analyze the symptoms that have arisen. What days did you have symptoms? What did you do, eat, drink, on that day and the 1-2 days prior? Is there any food or drink that you ate on these days that seem to crop up again and again near a bad symptoms day? Or were you particularly stressed? Did you get enough sleep?

Be systematic and patient, and most of all: curious! Use a highlighter to make potential triggers clearer as you analyse and spot potential patterns in your diet and symptoms. Patterns can sometimes be very big and obvious, or small and tricky to distinguish.

For example:

- On days when I drank lots of coffee and tea, I had bad stomach aches
- When I eat lots of bread and pasta, I spend a lot of time in the bathroom
- When I drink wine, my sleep is terrible, and the next day is a bust
- The days I took probiotics, I was more regular and energetic the following days
- When I drink water at the same time as eating, I feel nauseous after
- If I take too long in between meals, my energy levels dip/I feel sick

If you are following an elimination, FODMAP or similar diet (such as AIP), this page is especially useful for you in determining trigger foods.

NEXT MONTH I WILL
When you’ve noted those potential patterns, here is where you will focus on what you change, or keep the same, to feel healthier in the coming month.

For example, if your noted pattern is ‘when I drink coffee, I seem to get bad diarrhea’, you then need to mentally break it down into its potential irritants: the caffeine in the coffee, or the milk (if you take your coffee with milk).

Resolve to change one thing at a time each month to determine what is your specific trigger.

POTENTIAL TRIGGERS
Which brings us to the last section: here you pinpoint the specific things you think may be an issue for you.

To continue our last example, you have noted that it may be either caffeine or milk that is causing your symptom.

Write these here and decide to remove one at a time. Remove them from your diet for a couple of weeks before reintroducing to see if your symptoms return. If they don’t return, you will know that that is not a trigger for you. If they do: congratulations, you’ve found a trigger to avoid to ensure you stay happy and healthy!

As you continue tracking, your data will become more and more refined. You may want to keep a food diary alongside appointments with a doctor or dietitian/nutritionist who can help advise you on eliminating or reintroducing foods. Continue to track your diet and environment every day to maintain optimal health.

And that is our complete guide to keeping a food diary! Here is where you can get yours - the pages are undated so you can start straight away! 

Want more tips on keeping a food diary? Check out my post on the 8 ways I used my diary to heal my IBS.