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Uncover Your Eating Patterns with a Food Journal

Learn the benefits of food journaling.

three apples on top of a chart next to a pen

What did you eat yesterday? Maybe you remember some of it, but chances are, you nibbled a few things here or there that you barely noticed. You know you had some potato chips. But how many? Sure, you had some broccoli with your dinner. But did you have a big, healthy portion, or just a bite or two?

Being aware of what you eat can help you modify your diet and  eat better. Keeping a food journal is a great way to do this. Keeping track of everything you eat from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed (or even if you snack after bedtime), you’ll see exactly what, how much, when and why you’re eating. You may start to notice patterns that are blocking you from eating healthier.

How to keep a food journal

Being honest with yourself is key, or you defeat the purpose. Decide which works best for you — writing in a notebook or using an online tool or app on your phone. Make a commitment to journal every day, and try to record the information as soon as you can so you don’t forget anything. Write down everything that you eat and drink, including any alcohol, it all counts.  Be sure to also include how you were feeling at the time of eating, as emotions are often connected to eating, especially for cravings. Here are some things to include in your food journal:

  • Note the time of day.
  • What are you eating? Be specific. Instead of “sandwich,” for example, record exactly what kind of sandwich, including bread type, fillings and other ingredients.
  • Measure portions. Did you have half a cup of cereal, or a cup and a half? One scoop of ice cream? Or who-knows-how-much, right out of the carton? Become more aware of what a portion is. You may be surprised that you are eating two to three portions when you thought it was only one.
  • Notice how you’re feeling. Do you tend to eat when you’re bored, stressed or sad? Emotions can be a trigger for some people.
  • Who are you with, and what are you doing? Is it a normal family dinner, or a night out with friends?
  • Are there certain events where you eat or drink alcohol more than you may have intended, such as a family holiday where you are experiencing a stressful time or when around a particular person?

Noticing patterns, making changes

As you continue to keep your food journal, it’s important to review and reflect on it at the end of each day. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Did I eat healthy foods for meals and snacks?
  • How were my portions? Could I have eaten more or less of certain foods? Be honest, but not too judgmental about yourself and what you had today. You are trying to find patterns.
  • Did I limit high-calorie foods and sugary drinks?
  • How did I do with fruits and veggies? Could I include more? Why or why not?
  • Did I eat when I wasn’t even hungry? Why? What was I feeling? Who was I with?
  • Did I eat too fast, hardly noticing what I was doing?
  • Am I skipping meals, only to overeat later because I’m so hungry?
  • Am I making excuses or blaming others?
  • Are there any patterns of eating from childhood or learned patterns from family that I continue to follow, even though now I can make different choices?

Think about what you’ve discovered. If you’re noticing patterns or unhealthy habits, commit to making some manageable, realistic changes. If you see that you tend to eat simply because you’re bored, find new distractions. If you eat when you’re stressed, try to find other outlets, like going for a walk, calling a friend or taking a yoga class. If you eat too fast, try to sit down, relax, and enjoy your meal, eating only until you’re full. And don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for your efforts and successes. Learn how to eat with a mindful attitude.

You may want to share your journal with your health care provider or a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. They can help support you in your efforts to eat better.

You don’t have to keep a journal forever. But do keep at it until you understand how your choices, habits or emotional triggers affect the way you eat. Being aware of what you’re doing, and honest with yourself about why, can help you make changes that last. 

By Laura Grathwol, Contributing Writer

American Academy of Family Physicians. Keeping a food diary. Accessed October 29, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Controlling your eating habits. Accessed October 29, 2020.
NIH National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease. Choosing a safe successful weight loss program. Accessed October 29, 2020.

Last Updated: October 29, 2020