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Is a Food Journal Right For Me? (The 5 W's of Food Journaling)

One of the tools I use when working with gymnasts to build their fueling plan is a Food Journal.

What: Food journaling is keeping an accurate record of the foods and drinks you eat. This includes what you eat, how much you eat, and when you eat it. Food journaling can also include information on your emotions before or after eating, energy levels throughout the day and during practice or a competition, athletic performance, or anything else that your body may be feeling (like headaches, nausea, upset stomach, or a change in bowel movements). While day to day data is important, the best information we get from food journals are trends over time (days, weeks, and months).

What a food journal is not for: A food journal is not meant to count calories or get caught up on minute details. A food journal is not meant to stigmatize or demonize any one food or food groups (no food is "bad".)

Why: Food journaling can be done for many reasons. The first and foremost is to make you more conscious of what you are actually eating throughout the day, or over the course of a week or month, and in return, how it impacts your life. If you are looking to change a habit or improve your overall nutrition, it is hard to do so if you are not aware of what you actually do each day. After compiling enough information, we can take a look at your overall nutrition. Are you eating enough or enough of the right foods throughout the day? Are you overeating, or overeating a specific nutrient? Do you have high energy some days and crash during others? Do some foods make you feel great while others give you an upset stomach? A food journal will show us these trends. We can then begin to adjust your overall intake to help you feel healthy and energetic, and perform at a high level.

Who: A food journal in its simplest form is great for anyone who wants to take a deeper look into their nutrition. Whether your goal is energy, performance, or figuring out what foods work best for you, a food journal is an important tool for you to use.

Who a food journal is not appropriate for: If you notice you or your athlete is becoming too caught up in the numbers or the minute details of a food journal, it may be time for a break. Try to focus more on the overall quality of the foods you are choosing, eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full, and being conscious of any emotions that go along with any certain foods or food groups.

For children under the age of 13, managing their own food journal may be a difficult task to handle. For young children, it may be best if the food journal is managed by a parent or guardian. It is still important to have a food conversations with your children (like asking what they ate at school or what was served when eating at a friend's house, how their energy level was at practice, or if they felt hungry, sluggish, or sick at any point during school or sports) but since the adult is the one still making most of the food decisions (like food shopping, meal planning, and cooking), the parent is the one that can make the adjustment in what is being offered.

When: It can be important to use a food journal as part of your nutrition journey, especially at the beginning. I like to think of it as a way to get instant feedback as you try to determine what your "normal" day should look like. After determining what food it takes to fuel a day for energy, athletic performance, and recovery, the food journal might not be an everyday habit, but something to revisit every once in a while to make sure what we are doing is still appropriate. Additionally, as nutrition needs change (in-season versus pre-season, or even with growth and development of children and teens) it is important to revisit the food journal to reassess our nutrition goals.

To get the most accurate results, food journaling should be done right after each meal or snack. That way you can truly remember what you ate, how much you ate, and any feelings surrounding that meal or snack. Some people like to pre-program their meals into their journal for the day. This may limit your freedom to eat more freely (like eating until you feel full versus cleaning your plate) or may impact how accurate your log is at the end of the day (if you eat differently than the plan and do not go in and update your journal).

When a food journal is not appropriate: It is very easy to get caught up in nutrition and healthy eating. Sometimes a break from the routine is just what a young athlete needs. Special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and family vacations are not the times to get caught up in the specifics of what you are eating. Enjoy your cake on your birthday and be present with your family on vacation. Make healthy choices when you can, but enjoy food and reap the benefits other than nutrition (like time spent with loved ones).

Where: When keeping a food journal, you will have to choose where you are going to track your food. Are you going to keep a notebook? Are you going to use an app on your phone or tablet? What about snapping a quick picture?

For children and teens, a notebook or phone note may work best. That way, they can jot down what they ate and how they felt after. A pen-and-paper approach gives no type of arbitrary feedback, such as counting calories, sugar, or fat. But for a child, the only information we truly need to know is what they ate and what the impact of that meal was as the day progressed.

Where a food journal is not appropriate: For adults that are able to handle processing more nutrition information, the mobile food journal has simplified the food journaling process (and most of the apps in the app store are free!) Most have very large and extensive food databases, have a bar code scanning feature, and allow you to build or import recipes. If logging at or after meal time, most apps will timestamp your entries for you. And they still have space to add goal-oriented notes as we previously discussed, including energy levels, practice performance. However, for many young gymnasts, it is very easy to get caught up in the numbers and base their food choices off of the app, and not off of their preferenes or how foods make them feel.

The the gymnasts that I work with 1-on-1 are given access to a free journal app to help them keep a running log of their food and any notes that go alongside it, without the visuals of macro or calorie trackers.


Kerry Bair, RD, LDN, MPH

The Gymnast RD

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