A Simple Habit That Will Change The Way You Eat

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
There's not a lot I miss about dieting, but one thing I secretly, whine-ily pine for on a regular basis are the tricks. For most of my life, I snatched them up everywhere, like a hungry pickpocket: Drink a big glass of water before a meal to trick your body into feeling full! (I read that classic in numerous diet books.) A friend-of-a-friend of a famous actress once told me she would eat half her meal, and then dump salt all over the rest to stop herself from finishing. Or this lunacy I picked up in an old O feature: If you're still hungry after dinner, just chew on an orange peel!

I'm glad I'm no longer sitting around chewing on orange peels. But I miss the simple promise of diet tips, even if none of them actually delivered. With intuitive eating, there are no magic tricks or shortcuts. But there are some great tools. And one, in particular, has been more effective at changing my relationship to food than any orange peel: my food journal.

Food journals, of course, are also a staple of many diets. But, with this journaling method, I'm not tracking calories, points, or carbs. Instead, I'm tracking things like hunger, fullness, cravings, satisfaction, emotions, and any judgments I find my mind making about my meal. Yes, as ever, it's a lot more complex than a diet food journal. But though it's not a "trick," this method works like magic. This is how I learned to be curious — not critical — about the way I eat. And that's when my eating habits really began to change.

I began this practice back at the start of The Anti-Diet Project, at the urging of my eating coach, Theresa Kinsella. Each week, we'd go over my eating record together and note any patterns that emerged or any reactions that needed addressing. If I found myself flinching over a piece of pizza or boasting about my spinach salad, we talked about it. We talked about it until I was able to admit that maybe I had some lingering stress over eating pizza — and also that I found spinach brag-worthy.

Eventually, these conversations became more of an internal habit, and I no longer needed the journal. And that was the end of all my problems with food, forever! End of story — see you next week!

Just kidding (but can you imagine?).
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
As I wrote a few weeks back, I'm in the midst of my own "fresh start." Having spent the past year and a half occupied with writing my book, a lot of those healthy, new, internal habits got shaken loose by the stress (and time-suckage) of maintaining two full-time jobs at once (plus, like, my life). So, when I finally got back some bandwidth to devote to my fitness and eating practices, the food journal was one of the first things I reached for.

This time around, I decided to simplify things even further and download an app that would suit my purposes. I wound up using the Rise Up + Recover app (not because anyone pitched or paid me to do so, FYI; it was simply the first app I found that suited my needs). The app is full of tools and resources, but all I use is the Log Meal feature, which has designated fields where I enter what I eat, when/where I eat it, and whom I'm eating with. It also has a seemingly endless list of feelings I can check off to gauge my emotional state — and a big, blank "notes" section where I can detail all those key observations about the meal. Here's an example of a meal I journaled during my first week with the app:

Time: 7:40 p.m.
Where: Restaurant
With: Friends
Meal: Grilled salmon with mashed potatoes. Side salad.
Feelings: Tired, happy, stressed.
Notes: Worried over the mashed potatoes a little bit, thinking I should maybe ask for a different side that wasn't a starch. I ordered the side salad because I was worried about not getting enough greens in today, and also because it made me feel better about the potatoes. I reminded myself I have permission to eat potatoes, but I still didn't want to finish them. Then, I finished the potatoes really fast. Am I still weird about potatoes?

The answer was, uh, yes, I'm obviously still a little weird about potatoes. Consciously, I may recognize that they're a totally acceptable, normal food to eat, but somewhere in my mind, there's a diet-addled maniac who sees potatoes as the bad guy. Good to know.

This entire entire entry took about three minutes to thumb-type out on the subway ride home from dinner. Thanks to the journal, I now had super-helpful intel on my relationship to food, and I could use that the next time I encountered potatoes. It gave me the opportunity to remind myself of important intuitive eating axioms, like Permission To Eat. Furthermore, it gave me the boost of knowing I was actively reinforcing the healthy mentality I wanted to cultivate.

I won't say it was effortless — or as simple as drinking a glass of water before a meal. Doing this food journal meant creating a new habit, and that requires a modicum of energy. But it's a modicum worth spending. I didn't do it perfectly; sometimes I didn't remember to track my meals until hours later, or even the next day. But this was a promise I made myself, and so I did my best to keep it up as consistently as possible. And lo and behold: It was worth it.

I'll spare you the weeks of food-based navel-gazing entries that followed and instead cut to one revealing meal the following month:
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Time: 2 p.m.
Where: Work
With: Alone
Meal: Roasted chicken thigh with vegetables. Side of roasted potatoes.
Feelings: Content, tired, stressed.
Notes: Felt good. Was satisfying. Didn't quite finish, so put leftovers in fridge for later if hungry again.

Not only is there zero Potato Panic in my notes, but there's no panic, period. According to my "feelings" list, I was still tired and stressed (issues unto themselves, I realize, but honestly — who isn't?). But when it comes to my food, I'm pretty much stress-free, at least in this moment. I didn't even bother with full sentences, let alone the starch soliloquies I wrote during the first week.

Just food journaling alone won't cure your food anxieties any more than just talking about your problems will make them go away. But if you want to solve a problem, you have to be able to see it. This kind of record gets your unconscious behavior out onto the page where you can see it — and understand it, and, if need be, get someone to help you figure it out.

It also takes your inner critic and turns it into an explorer. That's not an easy change to make on your own. If you have the ability to say, "Oh, I'm just going to stop criticizing myself and, while I'm at it, have an entirely neutral relationship with food," and actually do it, then great. (Can you email me? Are you a wizard?) But most of us need help to get there. Most of us don't have magic, so we need our tools.

I now keep up with my food journal regularly (if not perfectly — I am "tired" and "stressed," after all). It's helped me reconnect with my healthy eating habits in a natural way. It's kept me in touch with my physical response to food and has gently guided me back toward all those old, unhelpful issues I still have left over from my dieting days. Because they're there. That diet-addled maniac shrieking over potatoes is still hanging out in my head, somewhere. Maybe she always will be, on some level. All I know for sure is that if I leave her to her own devices, she'll run around like a crazy person, and I'll never be comfortable with a plate of potatoes again. The only alternative is to sit down and face her — let her vent her worries as I tap them out into my phone. Then, I can see them for what they are: old nonsense I no longer need, as useful as chewing on an orange peel.

Then, I put away my phone and get on with my day.

The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Anti-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at kelsey.miller@refinery29.com. If you just want to say hi, that's cool, too.

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