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Food Diaries Stink

Food Diaries Stink

By Jessica Setnick, MS, RD, CEDRD-S

You have lots of good reasons not to keep a food diary:

  • Someone else might see it
  • It makes you obsess about your eating
  • You feel judged
  • If you see what you eat, you’ll feel bad
  • If I see what you eat, you’ll be embarrassed
  • It’s a waste of time; you’ve done it before and nothing changed

I get it. I’ve kept a food diary before. The mean kind that makes you feel (insert your personal negative emotion here) because you weren’t perfect. If your experience with food diaries is anything like mine, you kept track of:

  • What you ate
  • What you drank
  • Body weight, measurements
  • Calories in, calories out
  • Exercise
  • Fat grams, protein, carbohydrates, or points
  • Whether you failed or succeeded, met your goals, had a “good” or “bad” day
  • Thinspiration images, motivational quotes or derogatory messages meant to keep you “on track.”

If your experience was like mine, the point of all this obsessive “keeping track” was to reach some “healthy” goals that weren’t healthy at all – and they weren’t that great when you got there. The whole process got really old eventually, but you didn’t know how to get out of it. Then, the next diet trend came along and it was exciting again, for a while. Eventually the food diary became both an obsession and a cruel punishment, a way to prove you were never good enough after all. So when your eating professional suggested you keep a food diary, you were immediately against it.

The good news is there are lots of other ways to document your observations about your eating, ways that support your recovery instead of tearing you down. In case you have a history of a negative, punitive food diary, too, let me tell you about what could be different.

Documenting your observations can take any form – words, sketches, photos, apps, recordings, checklists, sticker charts, coloring pages or anything else. You can use paper or devices; you can save them forever or shred them right away. They can be private, public, or selectively shared. They can include whatever information seems important to gather – much more comprehensive than what we used to write down.

  • What you ate and what you chose not to eat
  • Who, when, where, and why of your eating
  • Whether you enjoyed the experience or the food or not
  • Whether this eating was planned or spontaneous or felt like a binge
  • Physical feelings before, during, or after eating, including hunger level or fullness, or feelings of pain or discomfort
  • Emotions and thoughts before, during, or after
  • Comments made by others
  • Behavior triggers or urges and what you did about them
  • Lessons learned or tactics you want to implement next time
  • Anything else you want to notice, keep track of, or change.

Ideally, your documentation method should feel supportive and safe, but this may not be possible depending on your relationship with food and where you are in your recovery. It should not include any messages or consequences that are purposely meant to make you feel bad, even when you’re expressing negative or embarrassing things.

There are at least four benefits to keeping track of your observations about food and eating.

  1. Documentation offers you the opportunity for peace of mind by allowing you to stop recycling your thoughts about food and eating. When you start to dwell on something that happened, you can remind yourself that you wrote your observations down, they will be there if you want to review them, and you don’t have to try to remember them anymore.
  2. Documentation is more accurate than memory. It’s hard to remember how we felt in the past, either because the feelings have passed, because they are so painful that we block them out, or simply because time fades memories. It can be hard to recall your observations about an eating event that happened in the past without adding in observations you are having now. Documenting during or soon after the event provides more accurate observations.
  3. Documentation allows you to look at your actions and your eating more objectively. Although you will still have emotions and thoughts about what you ate, you can look at documentation of your eating with an eye to patterns or cause and effect in a way you are less likely to do in your mind.
  4. Documentation allows you to share your observations with another person, including things that you can’t express verbally. When you allow your eating professional or support partner to review your observations with you, they may see information you hadn’t noticed, pointing out patterns and asking additional questions to help you learn more about your eating from another point of view.

And I have an answer for each of your original objections.

  1. “Someone else might see it.” If your home is not secure and other people look through your possessions, consider intangible documentation that no one can find. Email your eating professional and delete from your computer. Text and delete from your phone. Put your documentation in the mail. Call and leave a voice message. Feeling unsafe in your home is a separate issue and worth working toward resolving. In the meantime, don’t let it thwart your efforts at recovery.
  2. “Documenting makes me obsess over my eating.” Consider if you are already obsessing over your eating. In that case, documentation can free your mind – see benefit #1 above.
  3. “I feel like you’re judging me.” This may not be your imagination – you may have participated in a diet program in the past where what you ate was judged or criticized. A true eating disorder professional does not use your documentation to judge or criticize you, they hold you in permanent positive regard, knowing you’re a good person regardless of your eating. Their goal is to support you, hear your thoughts and feelings about your eating observations, share the things they notice, make suggestions, and help you make your needed changes. If you feel judged, your eating professional may not be a good fit, but before changing, consider sharing this thought so they can address it.
  4. “If I see what I eat, it will make me feel bad.” This thought suggests that you already feel bad about your eating, so I wonder if you mean, “I already feel bad enough about my eating, why should I also write it down and look at it?” This might also reflect your desire to forget about your eating after it’s over. The only way to make changes is to know what’s happening now – awareness helps you know what to change. Share this thought with your eating professional who can help you learn to view your eating more objectively, not as a judgement about yourself.
  5. “If you see what I eat, I will be embarrassed.” If you feel embarrassed sharing your observations with your eating professional, tell them so they can support you and consider alternatives. Let them share with you how they will review your observations so you know in advance. Perhaps they are willing to review your documentation without you present and then share their thoughts at your meeting.
  6. “It’s a waste of time. I’ve done it before, and nothing changed.” You’re right. Documenting observations of your eating may not help you at all. But if you haven’t tried it this way before, or with this eating professional as a support partner, why not experiment and see what it’s like?

When I worked as an eating professional, I had clients who documented their observations in many different ways – from notebooks and spreadsheets to sticker charts and voice recordings – and a few clients who asked their support partner to document for them. Some clients read their observations to me word for word, some preferred me to look them over and share my thoughts, others played them for me while we both listened and commented. Some clients kept their written records private and shared with me what they noticed on their own. Some clients kept records for a very short time, gathering essential and course-changing information right away. Others continued to document for years, even if we didn’t review their records together anymore, because they provided a feeling of security and support for their recovery. A few clients chose to continue documenting in their familiar,  punitive food diary format, and some chose not to keep any record of observations at all.

For those who allowed me to review their observations with them, many inspirations and realizations came out of the review process. My goal was to model acceptance, unconditional support, and learning from experience so each client could eventually practice these skills without needing me. My reward occurred when a client had an Aha! moment during a session or reported an insightful revelation they had noticed on their own. My hope is that reading my thoughts will offer you some courage to select a method that is supportive of wherever you are in recovery right now. You deserve Aha! moments, too.

About the author:

Jessica Setnick, MS, RD, CEDRD-S provides eating disorder training to health professionals of all kinds, both by invitation and through her signature workshop, Eating Disorders Boot Camp. Her most recent publication A Dietitian’s Guide to Professional Speaking: Expert Advice for Pitching, Presenting & Getting Paid is available at, where you can also download a free chapter. Jessica provides free educational handouts at, and you can reach her at


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