The Role of Journaling in Diet and Fitness

By: Jamie Bussin and Kathleen Trotter

I get it. Even if you’re inclined to keep a personal journal, it seems like a tired concept. When Apple includes a personal diary app in the latest software update for the iPhone, I think it’s safe to say that “journaling” is not an outlier notion. If you’re not inclined to record your thoughts, musings and fears, you’re likely not alone. Maybe your mental health is perfectly fine. But that doesn’t mean that journaling wouldn’t benefit you. What if you journal about your diet or exercise regimen? I discussed this notion on episode #74 of The Tonic Talk Show/Podcast with personal trainer and author Kathleen Trotter. This article is inspired by that conversation.

If you only eat ½ a cookie, do the calories count? Of course the answer is no, they don’t count. …or more precisely, you aren’t counting them. I eat healthily most of the time. Oatmeal for breakfast six days a week. Almost no ultra processed foods. I consume high quality proteins and eat a much more plant forward diet than in my youth. But when everyone else is asleep, the chocolate in the pantry beckons me like a siren to my healthy diet demise. I’m a late night food sneaker. So, generally I’m a healthy eater. But if I was eating with the specific purpose to lose weight, and I didn’t acknowledge the crap I ate at 11:53pm, I’d be deluding myself. And of course I’d be undermining my efforts. And in all likelihood would not attain my goal.

Journaling your food intake is foremost an exercise in accountability. According to Kathleen: “I really think it’s the awareness piece and I think that a lot of us really overestimate our healthy choices;  like people will come in and be like oh yeah, I eat really well and you know what? Really what they’re saying is, I have aspirational values of eating really well. They’ll say ’oh yeah, I exercise five days a week and I eat, you know, five servings of vegetables’. And then when we actually look at their journal, maybe they do that Mondays and maybe Tuesdays, but then you know, as of Wednesday, they start to fall off and then, as of Thursday, the weekend and Friday –  really the weekend (and the exceptions mount).”

Obviously, you need to be thorough and accurate in your journaling. The usable data is only as good as the inputs. When it comes to food or alcohol you need to be specific about your intake. Is that glass of wine you drink with dinner actually a “glass” (which is generally considered to be 5 ounces)…or was it a “generous pour”? Similarly, according to the American Heart Association, a portion of meat is 3 ounces (which would be roughly equivalent to the palm of your hand). 

But journaling is also a learning tool, which you can use to see where you might need to exert extra effort.  As Kathleen explains, “A lot of my clients will sit, come in when they’ve decided to be healthy and they’ll be like, you know, I’m going to make my breakfast the best breakfast ever. Then we’ll look at the journal and what we’ll figure out is, you know, their breakfast is actually not that bad. Where they’re eating a thousand extra calories is lunch, or, you know, business lunches, or at 11 o’clock at night, or whatever it is. So, you have to be able to pinpoint where you’re going the most off the rails, like what’s your biggest negative bang for your buck habit and then you can sort of address that. And that’s one of the great things about journaling in general.

There are other aspects of your health that you can record. Many people use apps to monitor their sleep. Kathleen encourages her clients to keep track of their exercise too. She also keeps a record of her healthy habits. Such as making sure to do some yoga after a run (particularly when she’s tired from her run) because it makes her feel good. She also tracks her emotionally unhealthy habits, such as being rude to people on the phone so that she can identify the triggers of the behaviour.

But if all of this seems like too much work, you might consider starting the process with a simple “X and O” type journal as it connects you to the emotions behind your food intake. Kathleen explains, “So you would have a [journal] and if the meal you ate when you were hungry stopped when you were full, or you ate nutritionally-dense foods, then you could just put an X. So you’re just like, ‘You know what? I listened to my body. I didn’t have a lot of sugar.’ It was what I call ‘Captain Obvious’ good eating. But if you ate when you were lonely, you overate, you got to feeling full and you kept going, you ate when you weren’t hungry, you had five servings of chocolate, or you didn’t have any vegetables; then you would put a big O for the meal or the snack.  You would note what you ate and the emotions behind it. So then you can start to brainstorm. Okay, interesting, I ate when I was lonely. Maybe I should have phoned a friend. Or I ate when I was tired. Oh interesting, I should probably have just gone to bed.” As in “O” how I wish I didn’t sneak that late night chocolate. “O”, I get it.