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Fit 4 Life | Dear food diary: Nutritional records can drive behaviour change

Published:Wednesday | August 1, 2018 | 12:00 AMMarvin Gordon
One of the most recommended techniques for controlling nutrition is keeping a food journal.

One of the most recommended techniques for controlling nutrition is keeping a food journal. Does it work, though? How does recording everything that one eats help in any way?

Questions like these are understandable; food records are often presented as an offshoot of calorie-counting – another branch on the tree of boring, depressing, restricting numbers.  

While it may be presented in that manner, food records are so much more. In fact, used correctly, food journals are one of the most effective tools for tackling nutritional behaviour change. And, yes, lasting behaviour change is the goal – not going on a diet. 

One common misconception surrounding nutrition records is that accounts are to be kept of everything you eat for the rest of your life. Even more popular is the myth that food diaries' main purpose is to identify nutritional mistakes. These feed the failure of the nutrition control technique.


So, what is a food journal? Nutrition records are a way of creating a nutritional profile. Before embarking on any attempt at nutritional behaviour change, it's important to have the full picture of how you eat currently.

To this end, fitness authorities such as the International Sports Science Association (ISSA) recommend tracking all that is consumed for a short period – usually at least three days – before making any attempt at change. 

What does this picture show?

A food diary will create awareness; it will give you an idea of where you are doing well; allow you to determine the quality of the food you are eating; and identify what ISSA calls 'limiting factors'. Limiting factors are the choices or conditions that will prevent you from reaching your goals; for example, overeating or not eating fruits and vegetables.


How do you take this picture, with a camera? Well, yes; you can. While the traditional method is to use a  more formal record such as an actual physical (paper-based) journal or using software tools, modern technology such as smartphones make it easier to track what we eat.

There are many smartphone apps designed for this. And, of course, you can simply take pictures of everything you eat for a few days with your cell phone. 


So, when does the counting begin? Don't. Calorie counting is not the focus of a food journal. Remember, the idea is to create awareness in an attempt to drive lasting change.

You don't need to depress, demotivate, or bore yourself with the numbers just yet. Instead, look at where you are doing well and try to figure out how to do more of those, then look at your limiting factors and try to figure out how to improve on those areas.


Are there other things to avoid doing? Yes.


- Forget to record portions;

- Forget to record drinks and juices;

- Forget the snacks, however small they may be;

- Record what you plan to eat. Only record what you have consumed; when it comes to food, plans are often never realised. 

- Under-record. Make notes about the food you eat; whether you over-ate; whether you were hungry when you ate; the mood you were in; the time between meals; and even record missed meals. 

- Marvin Gordon is a fitness coach; email:;