Using a Food Diary to Improve Wellness

Our diets have a direct impact on our health. Everything we eat and drink has short and long-term effects. By keeping a food diary, we can track what these effects are and make the changes we need to be well.

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Before you begin, you will need to decide on what your focus is. Your goal in tracking your diet determines which details you need to record.

Various reasons include:

  • controlling weight
  • promoting sleep
  • managing mood
  • improving nutrition
  • managing a chronic illness
  • identifying triggers

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Regardless of your tracker’s purpose, you will need to document what you eat and drink.

Additional details to choose from include:

  • time of day
  • amounts consumed
  • food groups
  • ingredients
  • meal environment
  • emotional state
  • hunger levels

Match the details to your defined purpose.

A particular note to point out here is food and drug interactions. Talk to your pharmacist about any foods to avoid or add to your diet with the medications you are taking. Caffeine, alcohol, and citrus fruits are the three most common offenders. Some prescriptions may also cause either malabsorption or toxic build-up of critical nutrients. Ask your pharmacist about that too.

It’s recommended, for accuracy, to document details immediately after you consume something. Whether you should or not depends on the degree of details you need and how reliable your memory is.

For instance, by the end of the day, I make a list of what I ate and drank roughly in the order consumed. Mostly this is to make sure I’ve had more than just coffee since my medication suppresses my appetite. I always keep track of the number of caffeinated beverages. Otherwise, unless it’s pre-measured, I don’t bother tracking portions. I also make a note of when trying something new since I have migraines and allergies.

If you are trying to identify new triggers, then you must record what you eat and drink at that time. Allergic reactions tend to occur within two hours – sometimes immediately. You will never see allergy symptoms the day after the item was consumed. In my personal experience, it works the same way for migraines.

If weight management isn’t a goal, then don’t worry about counting the calories. If your goal isn’t increasing your fiber, then you won’t need to concern yourself with which foods have it and which don’t. And so on.

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Have a list of your goals with you when you analyze your records. Then use the tracker to answer whether you’re meeting those goals. How often you do this depends on your goals and whether you are keeping other wellness trackers. I find it simpler to combine them into one and assess everything at once.

If you’re trying to identify triggers, it’s best to do this weekly, rather than monthly. Do you have symptoms that pop up after eating a particular food or ingredient? Sometimes it may take at least a month for a pattern to emerge, so don’t give up if you don’t see one yet. Once you’ve noticed a trend with an item, try removing it from your diet for two weeks and see what happens.

If the symptoms continue during that time, the allergy isn’t likely from that item. One caveat to this is some allergies might behave like a game of Russian roulette. Sometimes there’s no reaction, but when there is one, it’s dangerous. For example, I always react to oranges, but I don’t every time to lemons. When I do, it’s immediate and involves difficulty breathing. It’s safer for me to avoid them entirely.

When looking for other types of triggers, pay attention to combinations and preparation methods as well.

If the symptoms vanish that period, it might be a trigger. You can go another two weeks without it to see if they remain absent. You can also cautiously bring it back for one day. Or you can start trying it with various combinations the next period. If the symptoms flare up after eating it at this point, then it is a trigger.

This method is known as the elimination diet. It is relatively cheap and effective in identifying all types of food based triggers.

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Whatever your goals are, use the tracker to decide whether changes in your diet need to be made. Make one at a time whenever you can to make it easier to determine whether it’s helpful.

Remember that some things need a series of changes before you start seeing results. Don’t give up or rush yourself. Meaningful, lifelong change takes time to happen.


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