How to build the habit of keeping a food diary
Have you ever tried to keep a food diary, but you just couldn’t make the habit stick?
Here are our top tips for keeping a food diary and actually making it work.
If you’ve ever experienced vague stomach aches or tummy troubles, heard a doctor tell you ‘it might be IBS’, or worked with a dietitian, then you’ve probably been told you need to keep a food diary.
So off you went to either buy one of ours, or to create your own from a notebook, and you were full of the joys of tracking…for approximately 3 days. Then life happened. Or you got a little frustrated. Or bored. Or you were just in pain or discomfort and frankly it crowded everything else out of your mind, including how useful a tool like a food diary can be.
I totally get that – I myself attempted a couple of ‘food diaries’ (insert giant air quotes here) on random scraps of paper before I decided to get serious and be consistent in order to find the patterns between what I was eating and my various symptoms. The final time the habit stuck, and what I found out from using my diary has been invaluable for my health ever since.
So, here are my top tips for building the habit of keeping a food diary – and helping it stick:
1. Set an alarm for mealtimes
Ideally with a food diary you want to be jotting down the things you ate very soon after you’ve done so - ditto when you experience symptoms – you want to try to record them in the moment (I designed the diary to be portable for this exact reason).
If you’re like me and tend to have fairly ingrained habits when it comes to the time of day you eat (breakfast at 7, snack at 11, lunch at 1, anyone?), then you can use this to your advantage when keeping a food diary: simply set a recurring alarm on your phone to jingle for a few minutes after you’re likely to have finished eating. Each time it goes off it’ll remind you to pick up your diary – and pretty soon you won’t need that reminder anyway.
If you’re not someone with defined eating hours simply set an alarm to go off three times a day at regular intervals, and jot down what you can remember in your diary as soon as the alarm chimes.
2. Put your food diary where you can see it.
No truer maxim than ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and that’s the exact opposite of what you want when you’re building the habit of keeping a food diary. So instead, to make sure you pick it up each day, set it somewhere you are guaranteed to be every single day.
Here’s a few ideas:
Keep the diary on your nightstand every night so that it’s in your eye line as soon as you wake up. (This is also a great prompt to fill in the sleep quality section).
Put it next to the kettle so you’ll see it when you have your regular cup of tea each morning.
Set it next to your probiotics/medicines, to pick up as soon as you take your daily dosage.
3. Set up a buddy system
If you’re someone who needs the accountability of other people, then a good way to get a habit to stick is to enlist a friend!
Does someone you know also need to keep a food diary? Or do you have someone in your close circle who has been with you on the journey to getting better so far? If so, ask them to text you at the end of each day to ask you if you’ve filled in your diary today. Just the knowledge that you have to tell them ‘no’ if you don’t can help give you a little forward momentum in picking up the diary every day.
4. Create a happy ritual out of doing the Monthly Page
While it only takes a handful of minutes to ensure you’re filling in your Daily Pages, the Monthly Page is something you want to spend a little longer over. I explain all about that in this blog post here, so hop on over after this if you don’t know why the Monthly Page is such A Big Deal.
Essentially it’s the page that makes you sit down and analyze the data in your daily pages. It’s where you start to notice patterns, and make connections between what you’re doing and eating on good days or bad days and what makes them so. Without it you could be endlessly filling in Daily Pages and not think to look back over what has happened in the previous 30 days.
So it makes sense to make this something you look forward to. Put half an hour in your calendar (or even just 15 minutes if you really can’t spare the time), and make sure you won’t be disturbed. Get a cup of tea. Light a candle. Maybe even take yourself off to your favourite coffee shop and treat yourself to something that’s been calling your name all week. However you do it, if you make it something to look forward to every month and you’re going to have a better chance of sticking to it.
5. And most importantly: commit to why you are keeping a good diary
If you have this vague idea that you ‘should’ keep a food diary, but no real sense of why it’s helpful or what you want to keep one for, the habit will prove impossible to keep. In fact, it’ll fall by the wayside quicker than a New Year’s Resolutioner’s gym membership.
So: ask yourself why you want to keep a food diary. Is it to pinpoint the causes of troublesome symptoms? Is it to ensure you’ve given your absolute best shot to a healing diet like Low Fodmap or AIP? Is it to give your Doctor or Dietitian the clearest and most in-depth data you can give them in order to help them diagnose a problem? Or do you simply want to better understand your diet, your health and your lifestyle over all?
For me, I wanted an end to the nausea and the sickness and to find out once and for all what the relationship between my food and my symptoms was, because the doctors had carried me so far, and I needed to do the rest.
Whatever your answer is, be honest to yourself and be clear. Write down your reason in the notes section at the back of your diary and read it every day to remind yourself of why you’re taking the time and effort.
Only when you know your ‘why’ will it become easier to keep up the habit of keeping a food diary.
Extra reading about habit formation
I’ve always been pretty fascinated about habit formation (essentially the questions of ‘why do we humans do what we do? And why don’t we do what we don’t do?’), and I have a couple of favourite books about the topic that you might be interested in.
Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin.
Gretchen Rubin and her sister Elizabeth Craft are two of my utmost favourite writers and podcasters! They co-host the podcast Happier (https://gretchenrubin.com/podcasts/), which is dedicated to discussing happiness, habits and human nature, and evolved out of one of Gretchen’s previous books: the Happiness Project.
Better Than Before (‘what I learned about making and breaking habits’) is a fantastic deep dive into the nature of people, unproductive habits, and strategies we can all employ to help us start and keep good habits in our lives.
This is one of the most helpful books I’ve ever read when it comes to forming habits, large and small, that make my life better.
The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
While Gretchen Rubin’s book is purely focused on the personal, Charles Duhigg’s book takes a wider view of the psychology of habits. More focused on habit in the workplace than on personal happiness and success, it’s nevertheless a great read if you’re interested in the general psychology of habits. It covers great case studies from how businesses have harnessed the power of habit to create better and safer workplaces, to how habits were crucial to the success of people like Michael Phelps, Martin Luther King Jr. and Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO.
Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates us, by Daniel H Pink
Again this one is way more ‘work’ or ‘career’-based in its subject matter than Gretchen Rubin’s also, but it’s also a great read and it would be pretty remiss of me to miss it off. If you’re a manager of people at work, it’s a good book to read to help you understand people’s motivations!
So are you feeling motivated to get your food diary up and running again? Something else that can help you is having the guidance of our Daily and Monthly pages, which ensures you’re tracking the right things each day! Check out our diary here.