Posted in Bullet journaling, goal setting, Health and Nutrition, Planning and journaling, Setting goals and intentions

Monday Matters: A mini guide to keeping a food journal to help with diet and weight loss

Earlier this month, I talked about how I might start a food journal to help me track my eating and drinking. Before starting, I researched the benefits of this practice and spent time learning about what I should include. A number of studies have shown that people who keep a food journal or diary are more likely to be successful in losing weight and keeping it off. According to my reading, the simple act of recording everything that you eat and drink each day can help you consume less calories and make healthier choices which aids weight loss.

What are the benefits of keeping a food journal?

Writing down what you eat and drink and how you feel at regular points during the day can help in a number of ways including:

  • Increased awareness of what you eat
  • Shows you how much you eat and drink in a typical day
  • Highlights reasons why you eat and drink e.g. boredom, stress, mid-afternoon slump, feeling sad etc
  • Begin to see if you’re eating too little or too much
  • Able to roughly track your calorie consumption and make comparisons between this and calories burnt each day
  • Able to check hydration levels – some people mistake thirst for hunger
  • Increased mindfulness i.e. awareness of eating, drinking and any patterns
  • Able to see where you could tweak your diet to make it more healthy and balanced

What do I need to start a food journal?

As many of you will know, I prefer pen and paper methods so I decided to use my bullet journal to record everything. I kept it simple with a title and a bit of washi tape and I used double page spreads to give me plenty of writing room. Any notebook and pen will do but it’s helpful if it’s something you can take out with you in your bag so you can record on the go – recording everything at the end of a long and busy day is quite an onerous task!

If you prefer to keep digital records you could create journalling pages in Notion or MS Word on your phone or tablet. You could also set up a simple spreadsheet to include date, time, foodstuff and how you’re feeling. Another option is to use an app like My Fitness Pal which can help you measure calorie consumption – beware though that it will keep trying to persuade you to sign up for a free trial or pay a monthly fee! I tried logging things on My Fitness Pal to see if I liked it and I found it really quick and easy. You can scan the barcode on your food packets and it shows the calorie content. You can also see and record other nutritional information but some details are only accessible on the paid for premium version.

Tips for getting the most out of your food journal

  • Log absolutely everything you eat and drink even if it’s something small or very low in calories e.g. one biscuit, a square of chocolate or a single boiled sweet. In doing this, you’ll have a full picture of your current diet.
  • When you log a food or drink, consider why you are eating and how you’re feeling e.g. a glass of wine to wind down after a long and busy day, feeling shattered etc.
  • Make sure you record how specific foods are cooked e.g. boiled, fried, roasted, steamed etc.
  • Include information about dressings, sauces and toppings and the amount e.g. 2 tsps of French dressing on salad.
  • Think about adding information about where you’re eating / drinking and who you are eating with e.g. at the dining table with family, at my desk, in XX restaurant, in a cafĂ© with my partner etc.
  • Jot down what you are doing at the time e.g. watching TV, at the computer, having a catch up with a friend etc.
  • Be really specific about the type of drinks e.g. half a pint of beer, caramel macchiato, small mug, 200ml of orange juice etc.
  • Don’t forget to include alcoholic beverages and the amount e.g. one shot glass of vodka with 100ml of coke etc.
  • Think about logging the calories of meals at a restaurant if this information is on the menu, or check out the packaging of foodstuffs and drinks consumed at home.
  • Write down if you get any cravings and if you gave in to them or distracted yourself with an activity.
  • Note down how hungry you are when you eat.
  • Record your food and drink as soon as possible after eating/drinking so you don’t forget things. If you use a notebook or paper and don’t want to take it out with you, try making a quick note on your phone to transfer to your journal when you get home.

Analysing your food and drink log

Once you’ve recorded your food and drink for 5 days or so, consider what it tells you. So, for example:

  • Am I getting my five portions of fruit and veg each day?
  • How healthy is my diet overall?
  • Does my diet include wholegrains?
  • Does my mood affect my eating and drinking habits?
  • How balanced is my diet – am I eating too much or too little of something?
  • Do I have snacks and how healthy are they?
  • Am I paying full attention when I eat or am I often busy doing something else? (how mindful am I?)
  • Which areas of my diet could be improved upon? e.g. I could eat more vegetables, I could cut down on takeaways and try to do more cooking from scratch, I could eat a piece of fruit as a snack instead of a chocolate bar in the afternoon etc.

Setting some healthy eating goals

When you’ve identified areas for improvement, you could have a go at setting a couple of healthy eating goals for yourself. I recommend using the SMART framework for this so you can measure your progress easily. So, for example, when I was depressed, I struggled to eat breakfast and got into the habit of having a bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes each morning as they’re easy to eat. When I started to feel better, I continued to eat this cereal as it had become a habit and one which I enjoyed. My husband suggested I try eating a healthier cereal every other day so I’m now having a portion of Shreddies four days a week. Here’s how it looks using the SMART goal system:

S = specific. Eat a wholegrain cereal every other day – a portion of Shreddies (or possibly Weetabix as an even better alternative according to someone in the know about healthy eating)

M = measurable. Does my food journal show that I’m doing this consistently?

A = achievable. Start small, do it every other day for the time being. Eating wholegrain cereal every day will make it a lot harder and I might start craving the Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and give up!

R = relevant. Does it fit with what I want in my life? Yes, I want to break the habit of eating a sugary cereal each day. I also want to tweak my diet to make it more healthy.

T = timely. Do the above consistently for two weeks to meet the initial goal and then increase to wholegrain cereal 5 days + a week.

Other goals include breaking the habit of having a packet of sweets every Friday / Saturday and finding alternative and less calorific desserts for during the week. I intend to work towards a couple of goals at a time so that I don’t feel that I’m denying myself too much.

Final words…

Although keeping a food and drink journal can be really helpful for improving your diet and eating more healthily, I wouldn’t recommend keeping records in the long term as it can be a time consuming habit to continue and you don’t want to feel like it’s a huge chore with no benefit. After 3 or 4 days, you should start to see patterns and be able to identify a few tweaks you could make to your diet to aid weight loss and ensure better balance between the different food groups and recommended consumption of foods in the different groups such as fruit and vegetables, protein and carbohydrates. For further information about your daily eating and drinking habits, you might want to consider logging things for a couple of weeks and setting yourself some mini goals to work towards.

I had a meeting this week with one of the weight management team ladies and she suggested some ideas for tweaking my diet to increase my success. She also mentioned that she didn’t advocate calorie counting or weighing food in the long term, instead she suggested educating myself about different foods and drinks using the traffic light system on packets and developing better understanding about portion size.

Nutritional information on the Shreddies packet

Let me know in the comments if keeping a food and drink log is something you’ve done in the past, considered doing or something you definitely want to try. If you’ve given it a go, I would love to hear about your experiences whether positive or negative.

In the end, I decided that I actually prefer using the My Fitness Pal app for recording as it’s much quicker than writing it all down. I’m still learning how to use all the features but so far I’ve managed to sync my Fitbit with the app and I’ve found that you can search for recipes you found online and retrieve the nutritional information (although you can’t include any changes you made to the ingredients.

Screenshot of my diary on My Fitness Pal

Thank you for reading,

Posted in fitness, life hacks, lifestyle, mental health, Mindfulness

Monday Matters: Why am I not losing weight despite working my ass off?

Those of you who regularly read my blog will know that my Monday Matters series is generally concerned with mental health and wellness. So, you might be thinking, how come this post has veered off that topic completely and is about weight loss, or more importantly lack of? Well, if you are trying to lose weight yourself through a combination of dietary changes and increasing your activity levels, you will know that when you step on the scales each week (or maybe even daily) to check your progress, it feels pretty rubbish if they read exactly the same as the previous time (or even worse, the number has crept up!). And the likelihood is, that this has a really negative affect on your mental health in terms of mood, confidence levels and motivation to keep going. So really, this post is totally on topic.

For the benefit of myself and any other readers who are working hard on their fitness and hoping to lose a few pounds on the way, here’s a collection of reasons why those scales might appear to be stuck and what you can do about it…

You’re not resting enough

I talked about the importance of rest days in my previous post here where I gave suggestions on how to create a workout for beginners but I didn’t know at the time that exercising too much could actually cause weight gain. Apparently, if you over exercise, your body can get stressed out and increase the production of cortisol (the stress hormone) which can contribute to you putting on weight. The solution for this one, is to make sure you incorporate rest days into your workout schedule where you don’t do any intense working out such as aerobic exercise or HIIT programmes (High Intensity Interval Training. Fitness experts recommend you train five days a week and have two rest days.

You’re not getting good quality sleep each night

Also related to rest is our sleep habits. If you’re not getting enough Zzzzzs then you’re not giving your body the chance to repair muscles and tissues. In fact, lack of sleep can also lower your metabolism which doesn’t help on the weight loss front either. Different people need different amounts of sleep to function well but you’ll know what feels right for you. I personally like to get between 7 and a half to 8 hours each night. If you’re struggling with getting good quality sleep, you can check out last Monday’s post in which I presented some ideas on how to get better kip.

Another issue with lack of sleep is that it can drastically affect your mood. If you’re sleep deprived, you can feel irritable, confused, depressed and lethargic the next day and this can reduce your general activity levels or make you reach for quick energy boost food and drinks which are often not healthy choices. As well as tracking your meals, you could also track your sleep and your mood to see how they affect each other and your food choices.

Your calorie intake is too high

According to dieticians, a woman needs to eat approximately 2000 calories to maintain her weight. For weight loss, you should be eating less than this each day. Obviously, this depends on age, weight and height as well as a range of other factors but the simple fact is that in order to drop some pounds, more calories need to be expended than are entering the body. I have a Fitbit which tells me how many calories I’ve burnt each day (usually around 2400 on an active day) but I really have no idea how many calories I have coming in because I don’t measure them. Some people swear by counting calories religiously but I think a better solution is to keep a food and drink diary so you can see exactly what you are consuming each day and how often you’re eating highly calorific items. This will help you examine your diet and can help you see if you’re making bad food choices or overeating.

Your calorie intake is too low

Conversely, it’s also possible to eat too little due to a highly restrictive diet and this causes you to go into starvation mode. The effective of this is that your body tries desperately to conserve energy which can prevent you from losing weight. A common symptom of starvation mode is that you feel extremely tired all the time which is certainly not good for your health. Again, I would recommend keeping a food diary so you can track how much fuel you are giving yourself each day. You should also check that you are getting a balanced diet and not avoiding any food groups. There’s lots of advice online about making sure you eat properly and as I’m no expert on the subject, I’ll just share this link from the NHS.

You’re eating and drinking ’empty’ calories

The source of the calories that you do take in is really important if you want to lose weight. If you are eating a drinking things that have little or no nutritional value then you may find that this is preventing weight loss or even causing you to gain. Food and drinks that contain a high level of solid fats or processed sugars are generally to blame. These are found in fast foods, pre-packaged desserts, fried foods, carbonated soft drinks, salted snacks, energy drinks and alcohol.

If you don’t want to deny yourself of these types of food and drinks altogether, you should at least make sure that they are the occasional treat and don’t feature too heavily in your diet. You should also try to balance them out with healthier choices and ensure you increase your activity levels accordingly. Keeping a food and drink diary can also help you to spot how often you are eating these types of items.

You’re focusing wholly on weight loss and ignoring other indicators of success

When you step on your bathroom scales you are simply learning how much you currently weigh. What you’re not finding out is how much of that weight is muscle, how much is fat, how much is water and how much is your bones and your bodily organs. So really, checking the scales is quite a limited way of discovering your progress and success levels. Therefore, if weighing yourself isn’t providing you with the motivation you need to stick with your current eating and exercise plan, you might be better off with a different approach. I’ve already shared my exercise tracker that I have as part of my bullet journal set up for May and I’ve really enjoyed filling it in and celebrating my achievements. Here’s the partially completely version (I moved BuJo part of the way through May so I photocopied them and stuck them in).

As well as monitoring your workouts, you could also find other ways to check in with yourself, for example, you could be more mindful of how your clothes feel and fit or you could do a pictorial record of what you look like each week in your exercise gear using your camera phone. You might also try setting yourself some performance related goals and congratulate yourself when you achieve them e.g. with a nice, bright workout top or some new leggings. My husband and I have both noticed positive changes with my body in terms of better posture from my yoga, toned muscles from my aerobics, weight training and targeted stretching and slimmer waistline and face.

If the scales are leaving you feeling discouraged, I also recommend writing some fitness related affirmations. They might not directly cause you to gain muscle and lose fat but they can be a great way to provide or increase motivation. Here’s some that I’ve recently added to my BuJo:

My overall health and mood are improving as a result of my increased exercise levels.

I enjoy working out and the energy it gives me.

My body is getting stronger, fitter and healthier every day.

I am proud of myself for exercising regularly.

You’re suffering from water retention

Water retention is when your body is failing to eliminate excess water. This can happen for a number of reasons and is particularly common in women at different times in their hormonal cycle (e.g. the week before your period). If you are being really careful about your diet and are exercising regularly but it’s having absolutely no effect, you may be carrying excess water weight. Physical signs of water retention include swelling e.g. of your ankles, breasts, fingers or stomach, puffy face, hips and abdomen and stiff joints.

Fluid retention can sometimes be caused by medication so if you think this might be the case, have a chat with your doctor about it. Other causes can be too much sitting about in one position so to combat this, try to get moving for a few minutes each hour (Fitbit watches are great for reminding you to move!).

You can also make dietary changes to reduce excess water, for example, increasing your intake of magnesium (found in whole grains and leafy green veg), vitamin B6 (found in bananas, potatoes and walnuts) and potassium (found in bananas, avocados and tomatoes).

You’re not staying hydrated

Talking of water, you need to make sure you’re getting plenty throughout the day so that you stay properly hydrated. Your body actually tends to store water when you’re dehydrated which can cause bloating and weight gain. You should try to drink at least two litres of water a day and more if you are doing intense exercise that causes you to sweat. You can also add hydrating foods to your diet – some of my favourites at this time of year include watermelon, strawberries, peaches and nectarines. Staying properly hydrated helps to flush out extra fluids and sodium from your body. It also helps you to avoid constipation which as well as being unpleasant can also cause extra pounds on the scales.

You’re eating mindlessly

Mindless eating is when you’re not giving your full attention to what you’re eating. This could be because you’re busy doing something at the same time e.g. watching a movie and snacking on crisps or chocolate or because you’ve let your attention wander to something else e.g. chores you need to do or what you want to do later in the day. Mindless eating can lead to overeating and the feeling of being ‘stuffed’ as you tend not to stop when you start to feel full.

The complete opposite of this is mindful eating which is where your attention is wholly focused on what you are consuming. If you are eating mindfully, your conscious of every bite or every sensation in your mouth until the point you swallow. This makes you eat more slowly as you savour each mouthful of your food. It also helps you to know when you are full and satisfied with what you’ve had which makes you more likely to stop before you become overly stuffed.

There are many ways that you can eat more mindfully. Always try to sit down for your meals, preferably at a table and away from any electronic devices. Spend some time appreciating what’s on your plate visually before you start to tuck in. Think about where different elements of your meal have come from and who has helped to make them available to you. Do you feel grateful for what you have to eat? When you start eating, go slow and take small bites, really savouring the taste and texture. Focus on enjoying each and every mouthful until you feel full.

Your medication is causing increased appetite

When I went through a bad spell with my mental health, I started to take two forms of anti-depressant medication alongside each other. One of these was Mirtazapine, and although my mood greatly improved, I found that I was constantly hungry even after eating a large meal, whereas before I had no appetite and lost weight. I’ve now stopped taking this particular drug as I watched my weight creeping up and didn’t want it to continue. When I talked to my doctor about it, he said that all antidepressants can cause these issues. According to my online research, when you start to feel better, things begin to become more pleasurable and this can include food. Now, I’m not going to stop taking my Citalopram and wouldn’t suggest you stop any medication which helps you but it is worth bearing in mind and monitoring your food intake closely.

A final recap

In summary, the key thing to focus on when trying to get fit and healthy is fat loss and developing a well defined and toned body. So, make sure you measure your progress in a range of different ways instead of just obsessing over your weight. Also try to ascertain if your calorie intake is less than your expenditure by doing some basic monitoring of your diet and finding out roughly how many calories you burn doing the different exercises in your weekly workouts.

Wishing you lots of success on your health and fitness journey, keep up the hard work!