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The food journal is a concept most people are familiar with—it's a classic. When I was in school studying to be a dietitian, I had many assignments requiring me to track and analyze what I ate. And almost a decade later, I still find myself teaching classes that includes a similar assignment. (Related: How to Start a Food Journal)
It's true that keeping a journal of what you eat or using an app to track your intake can be a useful tool to educate yourself on the nutritional value of various foods or highlight problematic patterns or gaps in your diet. (See: 6 Secrets Hidden in Your Food Journal) But, actually, my go-to tool is a little different. I encourage my clients to write in a gratitude journal.
I've found that this kind of journaling can be incredibly powerful in helping people foster a positive mindset as they work toward their goals. It may not seem directly related to nutrition, but hear me out. Staying in touch with things you appreciate about yourself and your life can help you maintain a generally positive, "can-do" attitude. This, in turn, helps keep you motivated and able to better handle stressors, such as during times when you'd normally stress eat. Basically, a healthy attitude in life can help you see the bigger food picture, instead of turning to a cupcake during emotional times. (Related: The #1 Myth About Emotional Eating Everyone Needs to Know About)
It's true: I've had a long *personal* love affair with journaling, but I really became a believer when I saw the powerful impact it had on my clients, too.
Why Gratitude Journaling Works
Many people are their own harshest critics. And the effect is magnified when people in your life add to that criticism, whether it's about your appearance, habits, choices, or personality. It's also easy to fall into the comparison trap or to feel like you're not doing enough, whether at work or at home. I've seen people—especially my female clients—internalize these awful things that just aren't true. These beliefs can hold you back from your goals even if you don't realize it.
When you're going through a challenging time or struggling to stay on course, acknowledging what's going well can help you avoid sinking into the mindset that you're failing. It reminds you that you can and you will and that you're worth the effort. That positive energy can be powerful, especially if you struggle with stress eating or resort to restrictive eating as a means of coping when you're stressed.
For example, one client with young kids and a high-pressure job would beat herself up over everything she was getting wrong and felt guilty for any shortcomings. One day, I stopped her and asked, "What are some things you feel are going well?" That's an opportunity to be grateful.
At first, it was really uncomfortable for her—but as she cautiously shared how happy she was to have made it to the gym several days that week, I noticed her body language change. She went on to share some moments where she could've made a choice she'd feel bad about but instead went with what her body really wanted and needed. She recalled a new healthy recipe she had tried and loved. Suddenly, the story of, "I have no willpower," transformed into, "I am making steady progress and these small changes are sticking." (Tuning in to these non-scale victories is one way to make a health transformation last.)
As an experiment, we had her write down one thing each day that she was proud of. As the weeks went on, she got into a groove, making and eating healthy food without agonizing over how to resist temptation. She said she felt more energetic and she was performing better at work because she could think more clearly—and that further motivated her to choose foods that made her feel good. She kept up a regular workout schedule and felt less guilty about making time for herself.
Another client likes to do her journaling in the morning (she says it helps her focus on how she wants the day to go) and then she re-reads what she wrote before bed. She tells me that it affirms the good things she's doing, and going to sleep with those reassuring words in her head helps her wake up the next day in a more positive headspace. (Journaling may help you fall asleep faster too.)
Food Journaling vs. Gratitude Journaling
All that said, a food journal still has value—especially if you're in the beginning stages of a new eating approach or need a low-key way to keep yourself accountable. Just try withholding judgment (read: no "I was horrible today" thoughts) and use it instead as information you can learn from. Including some notes about how you're feeling as well as jotting down a few nice words to help reinforce that amazing work you're doing can be so helpful. As another of my clients put it, "after a few weeks, journaling healed my relationship with food. I didn't realize how far my perception was from my reality. Revisiting the amount I eat and when I eat allowed me to re-evaluate why I eat." And that's the real power—finding your why. (See: 5 Proven Health Benefits of Gratitude)
If you're not sure whether gratitude journaling is for you, I'd encourage you to try it for even a week. Jot down just one thing every day you're grateful for or that you think went well. And if you feel silly doing it, it probably means you need to do it more often! Even if you don't feel like it's a life-changer, a little dose of positive energy can still go a long way in brightening a challenging day—and that's always a win.