The Dark Side of Food Journaling

For years, in my late teens and early twenties, I kept meticulous food journals, enough to easily fill a few neatly lined bookshelves. From a distance, they would probably appear to be interesting novels or even recipe books, some spiral-bound, some fully stitched together, a bright array of spines awash in curly cues and cerulean blues, their chipper appearance belying their monotonous contents.

Like everything I record to this day, the lists of my daily food intake quickly evolved into their own secret language, colors, dots, and stars denoting a complicated key of meanings that only I could interpret. At one particularly low point, a column of numbers next to the foods determined the grams of fat in each food; the goal column sum was zero. When my anorexic and orthorexic behaviors progressed to bulimia, the yellow-highlighted items represented the foods I had consumed and then promptly purged.

Eventually, the food journals became less a record of my food and instead took on a life of their own, anonymous voices judging every morsel that passed my lips.

Once I began to examine my eating disorder and its psychological underpinnings in therapy, it became clear that food journaling was a purge in and of itself, a way to relieve myself of the tension I built around eating, which in turn reflected my aversion to the tension of life itself. When I started to do serious work on myself to heal, I found I could judge how many untapped feelings were free falling through my body, based on my urges to jot down the list of foods I had consumed since breakfast. To this day, I still find grocery store receipts, old credit card statements, and discarded envelopes with impromptu food lists scrawled on the back and in the margins. Most of the time, these lists would be tossed in the garbage immediately after writing them, as if I could just as quickly and easily erase the thoughts and feelings that sparked their penning in the first place.

Many years later in my private nutrition practice, I did not encourage my clients to keep food journals, preferring to teach them methods of intuitive eating. I found that recording a list of foods, particularly for individuals who may also have underlying weight and body image issues, can quickly dissolve into a dictatorial list of reference, a harsh reminder of everything you “should” and “should not” have eaten as opposed to a quick overview of the nutrients your body was calling for that day.

It is a challenging concept for most adults to accept: That we are born with innate hunger and satiety cues that let us know when to begin eating and when to stop, assuming we present our bodies with a wide variety of foods and nutrients (and yes, that includes chocolate cake in addition to kale salad!). Over time, and often beginning at a very early age, our environments begin to erode our internal hunger cues, forcing us to rely on mercurial, external references for how much and how often to eat. This can take on many different faces, and can be as innocuous as parents encouraging children to take, “three more bites” of food or forcing them to clean their plates when they have already voiced being full. It can look like extreme restrictions imposed by parents on so-called “bad foods” like chips or cookies, and yes, it can look like keeping a food journal to inform intake, rather than relying on internal cues.

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What I did frequently ask of my clients was to verbally recall their last 24 hours of food intake from memory, and while this is by all accounts a less accurate snapshot, it provided a different kind of information; with the right probing questions, we could suss out which foods clients might be initially blocking out from memory and examine if those “mindless bites” served a useful purpose. This conversation, in turn, directed clients back to the concept of mindful and intuitive eating, relying on internal sensations and primal cues instead of external cues subject to change.

Not everyone is going to develop disordered eating behaviors by using food journaling, and like a 24-hour recall, a brief 3-day use of food journaling could provide a quick aha moment for an individual or Dietitian regarding deficiencies or excessive calories in day-to-day eating habits. But for the sake of returning to our innate ability to determine what our bodies need to function optimally, food journals may not be the gold standard. For me, the freedom that came from discontinuing my lists mirrored the freedom I found in consuming consistent meals without purging. And when the urge to jot down foods arises, it’s a cue for me to check in with myself to see what feelings I might be avoiding. But for now, my bookshelves are full.

More from Amy Isabella Chalker, RD, LMT

1 Comment

  • Hey Amy,
    First off I just want to say thank you for sharing your experience with food journaling! I have been aware of body issues since 6th grade. At my all time biggest I used to weigh 189lbs in middle school and was teased for my weight by kids calling me “fat, tubby, meatball etc…” I look back and laugh at all these moments because I have come a long way and I can say I am at a healthy weight relative to my size now.

    My older brother introduced me to working out and later on I eventually took a nutrition class and one of our assignments was to count calories consumed in a day. I remember that counting calories not only made me aware of the foods specifically *fat I was consuming on a day to day basis but it became more of a competition to reduce calories eaten to get this lean physique look that I always dreamed of getting. Mixing a strict low calorie diet (<2000calories) with high intensity workouts left me fatigued and even a bit malnutritioned for only 6 months of my life but it was noticeable. My skin was turning pale and my friends would ask me if I was alright because I did not look like myself. The turning point of this story was when I was on my way to class I was falling asleep behind the wheel because of fatigue and almost hit a couple of pedestrians (fellow students). I decided to give up a strict calorie counting diet and still passed my nutrition class with an A. 🙂

    Your article has helped me remember a long forgotten time where I was 19 and had an eating disorder. It is important to know how far we have come and where we are heading. I am glad I came across this article. Thank you for sharing again!

    Best regards,
    Jonathan C

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