How to Keep a Food Log (& Why You Should)
5 Minute Read: Chinese Medicine, food log, journaling, meal planning, habit shift.
Myth has it, around 5,000 years ago in northwest China, there lived a man who had clothes made of leaves, buffalo horns atop his head, and a transparent belly. Dubbed Shennong (“Divine Farmer”), this cat had a keen interest in using plants as medicine.
To figure out what they did and whether they were helpful or poisonous, Shennong experimented on himself – consuming hundreds of herbs and watching their effects through his see-through body. If something turned out toxic, he’d chase it back with tea, as an antidote.
Legend holds that Shennong identified hundreds of herbs and their properties through this method of self-experimentation. In the process, he fathered the 5,000-year-old practice of Chinese Medicine.
These days, Chinese Medicine doctors take a less dramatic approach to learning the many herbs in our pharmacopeia (which, by the way, includes animals and minerals in addition to plants).
For one thing, very few of us have see-through bellies. For another, Shennong is said to have died after the yellow flower of a toxic weed caused his intestines to burst before he could swallow the antidotal tea. (Bad day at the office.)
Self as Experiment
That unfortunate final test aside (sorry, Shennong), these sorts of self-experiments transformed our knowledge of medicinal herbs. (They also illustrate why herb testing is not something to try at home, without trained guidance.)
Fortunately, there’s a far safer – and equally powerful – place of self-experimentation: Food.
Indeed, when it comes to determining how a particular food affects your particular body, self-experimentation remains the gold standard. (Even if you don’t have a transparent belly.)
Thing is, even the newest, fanciest lab tests provide only a small snapshot of a much bigger, constantly shifting, very individual landscape. The information they offer can be helpful but is never complete. Sometimes, it doesn’t tell much at all or is even misleading.
I know. This can be incredibly disheartening when you’re suffering and just want a simple, straightforward answer to what’s wrong.
On the flip side, it’s also good news. Because while self-experimentation (usually) doesn’t provide fast, easy answers either, it is empowering.
How so? Well, first, you’re in charge. Second, you get to learn a whole lot about your body – what it likes and dislikes, how it reacts to things, what it needs to feel good and thrive.
Pretty cool, right? And pretty rare to get that information from lab tests.
Where to Start
When working with clients, I set up and guide the self-experimentation process. Many people do great with this, because they can lean into trained support and don’t have to figure things out all on their own. That said, there’s plenty of room for a DIY approach.
Whether you’re working with me or going DIY, keeping a food log is an excellent way to get started. I know – doesn’t sound so exciting, but hear me out.
Because by capturing what you eat and drink in one place, using a regular system, you’ll be collecting valuable data.
This data will, over time, allow you to see patterns you may have missed. It will also help you change patterns that don’t serve you.
Often, such change unfolds naturally – just through the simple act of observing and recording what’s going on. Your log gives you a place to watch this gradual transformation play out. It also offers a place to plan and track more intentional change efforts.
How’s it work?
All kinds of ways, really! The key is, whatever system you put in place should be something you’ll actually do on a consistent, sustained basis. I suggest starting this way...
Get a notebook or create an electronic document – the important thing is having one place to store and organize your research data. On page 1, jot down any initial questions you have...or things you’re curious about.
I notice I’m extra-tired and bloated lately – I wonder whether I’m eating more of something those days? Oh, and I’ve been getting super-annoying nasal congestion once or twice a week. Possible food connection?
The first week, record everything you eat and drink. Don’t try to change anything at this point, just get it all down as accurately and completely as possible. No judgement – it’s just an exercise in mindful awareness and record-keeping.
Be as specific as possible, making sure to include:
What you eat/drink (e.g., if chicken, say what kind of chicken, any sauce you added, etc.)
When you eat/drink it (e.g., breakfast at..., lunch at..., dinner at..., snack at...)
Rough portion sizes (e.g., 1 palm-size, 1 handful, 2 Tbs, 1 cup) Note: I DON'T advise counting calories.
Add as much “extra” information as you’re up for, including:
Physical symptoms that arise before, during or after eating/drinking (or from not eating/drinking)
Mental-emotional states or feelings that arise before, during or after eating/drinking (or from not eating/drinking)
Patterns of digestion and elimination
Cravings and aversions
Sleep quality and quantity
Memories, habits or patterns related to eating/drinking
Relationship, family or social issues related to eating/drinking
The above are just ideas – anything and everything is fair game. Food, eating and drinking relate to pretty much every aspect of our lives and ourselves.
The more deeply you investigate, the more useful this log will be – both as a diagnostic exercise and as a therapeutic tool and support.
WEEK 2 + beyond
During the following weeks, continue your log in a mindful, thorough, non-judging way. When working with clients, this is where I ask them to start incorporating individualized eating guidance.
Even on your own, you can probably identify one or two areas where changes might be helpful. Try them out and see how it goes!
In addition to what and when you’re eating, jot notes on any challenges, questions, insights, or changes – in other words, what’s coming up for you in body and mind.
I wonder how I’d do switching up my lunch routine one or two days next week...maybe even go strict paleo Monday and Wednesday. I’ll need to brainstorm new lunch ideas...and perhaps invest in a groovy lunchbox and thermos.
Make it yours.
The above suggestions are just that – suggestions. There’s no one right way to keep a food log, and part of the self-experiment is figuring out what system will work best for you (and be something you can stick with for at least a few weeks).
Heck, if it helps, you could channel Shennong and imagine you have his see-through belly. Each time you eat, picture your insides. Visualize whether things are going well...or not so much.
Just steer clear of poisonous yellow flowers (and, if you actually have a see-through belly, please send selfies ;).