How to Keep a Food Diary
A food diary is an important tool for helping you keep track of the foods you eat and your symptoms. If you do feel a return of symptoms, this is a great way to track down what may have caused them!
Of course, like any tool, a food diary is only effective if used correctly.
Rule Number One
The number one rule?
Write down everything.
Write down everything you eat, everything you drink (including water), every supplement and medication you take. Write down the weather, your symptoms, your stressors and where you are.
Remember, this is a tool. We want to be diet detectives and get to the bottom of your food sensitivities. It will never be used to judge you for the foods you eat.
Be as honest as possible no matter what your food choices are.
Write down what you eat, when you eat it (the time of day you had it) and the amount you had.
Don’t guess at the amounts if you can help it.
Measuring the amount of food or liquid is so much more accurate.
The more accurate you are, the easier it is to pinpoint triggers.
Remember, food sensitivities can be dose dependent.
Meaning, if you have a little you may be fine.
If you have a lot, you may be in trouble.
If you just have a half cup of black beans, you may be fine.
But if you make a big pot of black bean soup and eat it for lunch every day for a week, it could be a problem.
Rule Number Two
Be as specific as possible.
Pretend that someone is going to recreate your meals from your descriptions, give them all the details they would need to do that.
Note the names of foods and ingredients, the brands you used, the way the food was prepared (raw, baked, sauteed, fried in peanut oil, etc), every detail you can.
For example, don’t just write “macaroni and cheese”
That doesn’t really say much.
Was it from a box? What brand? From a restaurant? Which restaurant? From scratch?
Was it just stovetop or did you pop it into the oven to finish? Did you top it with breadcrumbs?
What recipe did you follow?
What kind of cheese did you use? Cheddar, mozzarella, gouda, a blend? What brand?
What kind of milk did you add to it? Skim? Whole? Unflavored Almond?
What kind of noodles did you use? Whole grain? Plain elbow macaroni? Quinoa pasta?
Did it have anything else in it?
When I was a kid my dad used to cut up hot dogs and put them into mac and cheese. As an adult, I usually add tomatoes and spinach. If you add anything, write it down.
Did you taste it and think it was a little bland, so you added salt and pepper?
Write that down.
See how complicated it can get?
Here's why it really is that important:
Let’s say you made mac and cheese at home using milk, American cheese and ricotta cheese.
And you were fine.
Then, you went out to your favorite Italian restaurant and had an aged gouda and cheddar mac and cheese with fresh grated parmesan on top.
And you ended up with a migraine.
We can look at the difference between these foods to try and pinpoint what triggered the migraine.
In this example, aged cheeses like gouda and parmesan tend to have amines, whereas ricotta doesn’t have as much. It could indicate an amine reaction.
The devil really is in the details.
That goes for medications and supplements as well.
If you take fish oil everyday, what brand is it? How many milligrams do you take?
Write it down.
The good news?
(I know you’ve been waiting for this!)
You only have to do this the first time you have the food. If you eat the same thing again or follow the same recipe, note that the recipe or food has already been included.
If you ate it as leftovers, note that.
Rule Number Three
Note your symptoms.
Any physical symptoms you’re feeling, even if you suspect they are unrelated to foods (like a cold).
Note the time of day they started and ended.
Note the severity (use a number scale, 1-10, 1 is mild, 10 is extremely severe).
Note that you didn’t have symptoms. That’s important too!
Rule Number Four
Write down general notes about the day.
Sometimes things we have no control over can trigger symptoms. That’s why it’s important to note things that are happening that are not food related.
Was it sunny? Rainy? Cold?
Is the weather changing?
A change in pressure can trigger migraines or cause other symptoms.
Were there fires nearby?
Smoke or other pollutants can also trigger migraines or other symptoms.
And don’t forget about personal details.
Stress can impact your symptoms as well.
If you have a big meeting that’s causing stress, note that.
While there are obvious sources of stress, like a job, there are other, not so obvious kinds of stress.
Feeling nervous about a first date, organizing a family get together or moving, for example.
They are a different feelings, but they bring stress nonetheless and can trigger an IBS flare-up or other symptoms.
Note these things.
If you’ve got a deadline looming and suddenly foods that didn’t bother you are bothering you, it could be due to stress.
Think of this as just another piece of the puzzle, and the more pieces we have, the more accurate a picture we’re getting.
The key to a food diary...
Food diaries can seem like an overwhelming amount of work.
The key is to write down anything you eat or drink right away.
Trying to recall later is never as accurate and writing down everything you ate and all the details for an entire day can take a while.
Breaking it up into smaller pieces, and recording everything you eat or drink as you ingest it is much more manageable.
And it does get easier, the longer you do it and the bigger store of commonly eaten foods, drinks and supplements you build up.
So stick with it, it WILL be worth it!
Elimination diets and food diaries are not for the faint of heart.
But neither are IBS or migraines.
Fight for yourself, fight for getting your life back.
Keeping a food diary may be a challenge, but it is only a temporary challenge. Discovering and eliminating foods that trigger symptoms will bring about so much relief!
The bottom line
Food diaries have a few ground rules (but don’t worry, they’re pretty simple and straightforward).
1) Write down EVERYTHING you eat or drink- foods, drinks (including water), any supplements (multivitamins, fish oil, etc.) and medications.
- Write down the amount of food you ate (it’s helpful to measure in the beginning, but as you get better at “eyeballing”, that’s fine)
- Write the exact name of the food (don’t write “cookies”, write, “ Kroger brand double chocolate chip cookies” and be sure to include the brand- just the first time you eat it).
2) Be as descriptive as possible! Talk about how food was prepared (steamed, raw, fried, crock pot, instant pot, baked, fresh, frozen, canned, etc.)
- If you cook, write down the exact recipe you followed (or any substitutions you made), cooking techniques, as well as the brand of ingredients you used (again, this is just the first time you make it).
- Be Honest. You’re only hurting yourself if you omit a food. This is a tool used to dig into food sensitivities, it will never be used to pass judgement over food choices.
- Keep this form with you during the day or use an app, keep a copy of this in your phone or use the notes in your phone to log everything you eat.
- Think about what you ate yesterday- can you recall it all? It’s much more difficult after the fact to remember exactly what you ate, so write it down immediately.
3) Note your symptoms.
- The term "food diary" is a little misleading becuase it's not just for food- keeping track of your symptoms (or lack of symptoms), their severity and the time of day you notice them is a key component of a food diary as well.
- If you're feeling great, it's important to write that down as well- no symptoms can be just as telling as having symptoms.
4) Write down other important notes about the day.
- Were there fires nearby? Did it rain? Did you have a big meeting you were stressed about? Weather, stress, and other environmental conditions can all trigger symptoms as well. Just make a quick note of the weather and anything noteworthy that happened that day.
Only 4 rules.
That’s not so bad.
You can do it.
And if you need encouragement or a hand to hold to guide you on your way, drop me a line and we can talk.