Ask the Nutritionist: Keeping a food journal can help explain eating habits, choices

  • Studies show that people who keep track of eating behaviors tend to be more successful at changing them.

    Studies show that people who keep track of eating behaviors tend to be more successful at changing them. Thinkstock

Posted3/18/2015 6:00 AM

Q. Will keeping a food record help me improve my eating habits?

A. Studies show that people who keep track of eating behaviors tend to be more successful at changing them. If you're considering using some kind of paper or online food diary, think about what you're trying to achieve. If you already know which habits you want to change, you may be successful keeping a simple record focused on one or two specific behaviors you want to change, such as evening snacks, soft drinks or second portions.


On the other hand, if you overeat or lack balance in your food choices but aren't sure when, why, and how much you eat, one way to find out is to record what you eat all day. Include notes of time, portion sizes, where you are eating (restaurant or home, kitchen table or sofa with TV), how hungry you are (1 to 10 scale) and whatever thoughts or emotions you can pinpoint. All this yields crucial information to identify specific problem areas and provide insights about what needs to change. Don't track only meals; for many people, it's snacks and unplanned eating here and there that adds up to create the most trouble.

If you're not sure what to do with the information you have, use a website that compares your eating to calorie- and nutrient-based standards such as the SuperTracker at Or send your records to a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RD or RDN) who agrees to provide you with feedback.

If you have a history of going on and off diets or are vulnerable to give up at setbacks, reconsider how you use food records. You can foster a positive attitude with a log that keeps track not of failures, but of successes (like how many times you workout). Look at a completed food record like a detective, looking for clues on what changes might be most helpful. Attitude is crucial: you need to expect gradual improvements, not immediate perfection.

Q. I'm confused about all the different types of fiber. What is functional fiber?

A. You're right -- it is confusing. Growing research shows that fiber is not all the same. Functional fiber is isolated fiber added to a food or supplement. Dietary fiber refers to fiber that occurs naturally in foods, including vegetables, fruits, grain products, legumes, nuts and seeds.

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Regardless of whether fiber is added to a food or occurs there naturally, different forms seem to differ in potential health benefits. Some types of fiber may help reduce problems with constipation. Other fiber tends to form a gel within the digestive tract, binding up cholesterol and helping to reduce its level in the blood. Still other fiber is a type that bacteria in the gut can ferment. This creates compounds that emerging research suggests may help keep colon cells healthy and reduce inflammation. More work is needed to better understand all these potential roles.

The fiber added to fortified foods (like certain breads, cereals, yogurts and more) tends to be inulin or gums. These fibers provide different health benefits than the dietary fibers from whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds.

Laboratory studies can isolate individual types of fiber to study the ways they may reduce risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. But trying to interpret results from studies with people can be complicated. That's because foods contain a mixture of different types of dietary fiber, and these foods also tend to be good sources of a variety of vitamins, minerals and natural plant compounds (phytochemicals). That makes it hard to tell how much of the link between high-fiber diets and better health comes from fiber, from these other healthful substances, from their combined effects, or even from a potential help with weight control from these foods.

Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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