An Ultimate Guide to Journaling for Weight Loss
For countless Americans, reaching and maintaining an ideal weight is a struggle. In 2015–16, 71.6 percent of American adults aged 20 and over were obese or overweight, according to the CDC. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016).
If you are one of the many people struggling with your weight, you likely understand the health impact that excess weight has. People who are overweight or obese are more likely to suffer from various health problems, including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and sleep apnea. The CDC also states obesity increases the risk for all causes of death (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). To put it simply, if you are obese, your risk of suffering an early death is increased.
Between the health problems, the lack of energy, and your self-esteem, you probably want to get rid of the excess weight as soon as possible. In fact, dieting is an American pastime. Close to half of the American adults (49.1 percent) the CDC surveyed between 2013–2016 said they’d tried to lose weight within the last year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). It’s likely that you’ve also tried to lose weight within the last 12 months.
Trying to lose weight is one thing but succeeding is another, especially when it comes to long-term success.
Researchers have discovered that while people typically lose 5 to 10 percent of their body weight within six months of starting a diet, most don’t succeed in the long run. It’s estimated that one-third to two-thirds of all dieters end up packing on the pounds and regaining more weight than they lost within five years. Some studies even say that going on a standard diet is a good indicator that you will eventually gain more weight (Wolopert, 2007).
Don’t give up and decide to have cookies for dinner tonight, though. You can lose weight and keep it off if you go about it the right way.
You are more likely to have a successful weight loss journey if you understand the psychology behind weight loss and then use journaling as a weapon against overeating. Then, you can finally overcome the battle of the bulge for good.
Instead of being another failed diet statistic, you can be a success story. Let’s begin by looking at a real-life success story. Then, you’ll explore the psychology of weight loss and find out how you can be a success story yourself.
A Weight Loss Journaling Success Story
Numerous people have embarked on successful weight loss journeys due to journaling. Charmaine Jackson is one such success story, journaling her way from 260 to 130 pounds (Caruso, 2013). She filled 14 journals over the course of five years in an effort to not just lose weight but to keep it off, and it worked.
Jackson said that she slowly gained weight over the years due to stress and mindless eating, and eventually, she made it up to 260 pounds. She’d spend her evenings eating chips and watching TV and had a hard time stopping herself.
She decided to make a change and joined a gym. Before long, she realized that going to the gym wasn’t going to be enough to lose the weight and keep it off. That’s when she turned to journaling.
She used journaling to track her moods and their impact on her food cravings. She realized that with journaling, she was more honest with herself. She even referred to her journals as her “truth serum.”
She continued journaling after she reached her weight loss goal. She realized it helped her stay on track and engage in mindful eating. She’s also done it for so long that it’s become a habit. She likens it to brushing her teeth. It’s just something that’s part of her day. That type of habit building makes it much easier to keep the weight off.
Do you want to be a success like Charmaine Jackson? First, you need to learn about the psychology of weight loss.
The Psychology of Weight Loss — Why You Overeat and How You Can Overcome It
Every time you start a diet, you probably began with the mantra, “Calories in, calories out.” The idea is to create a calorie deficit, so you won’t consume more calories than you burn. That sounds so simple, but unless you address the psychological factors of overeating, you will have a hard time losing and maintaining your weight.
This really comes down to two things. You likely overeat due to emotions or addiction. Let’s take a closer look at both.
Emotional Eating — A Common Reason People Overeat
Many people engage in what’s known as the emotional eating cycle (Melinda Smith, 2019). Once you’re trapped in the cycle, it can be hard to get out.
If you’re an emotional eater, the cycle begins with something upsetting you. It can be something as minor as getting cut off in traffic or as major as losing your job.
Once you’re upset, you have this overwhelming urge to indulge in food. You end up eating way too much, causing you to feel powerless over food. Then, something upsets you again, pushing you back through the cycle. Each time you go through the cycle, you gain more and more weight and feel more powerless.
Emotional eating has specific signs you can easily identify. First, while physical hunger slowly builds, emotional hunger happens all at once. You have to satisfy it immediately. You go from feeling full to hungry just like that.
Physical hunger can be satiated with different types of foods, even foods that you don’t love. However, if you have emotional hunger, you crave specific foods. Those are the only foods that will satisfy your needs. If you eat something that you don’t crave, the emotional hunger will still be there, waiting for you to satisfy it. That can cause you to take in more and more calories as you work to satisfy the hunger.
With physical hunger, you feel satisfied once your stomach is full. You aren’t hungry anymore, so you can stop eating. The same isn’t true with emotional hunger. You still feel hungry, even when your stomach is full. That’s why you continue to eat and gain weight. You can’t seem to satisfy the void. You might even eat to the point of feeling sick. Then, once the sick feeling wears off, you might find yourself reaching for food once again.
Except for people with eating disorders, physical hunger doesn’t cause feelings of guilt when you eat. You won’t feel bad about yourself for eating when you’re physically hungry. However, you will feel bad about yourself when you give in to emotional hunger. You can expect feelings of shame, guilt, and powerlessness. You might even think that you’re disgusting. These feelings can be overwhelming and even cause you to eat again.
Do you see yourself in those examples? If so, you are likely an emotional eater.
Causes of Emotional Eating
There’s some confusion about the causes of emotional eating. Emotional eating is an umbrella term that covers different types of moods and triggers. Look at some of the common causes of emotional eating. This is not an exhaustive list, so you might not see your mood or trigger listed. However, it will give you a general idea of the driving forces behind emotional eating.
Uncomfortable emotions are a common cause of emotional eating. Most people have strong emotions from time to time that they don’t want to deal with, and they often turn to food. This can include shame, anger, sadness, fear, or even loneliness. Eating helps them numb their emotions, so they don’t have to deal with them. Of course, binge eating can cause new unpleasant emotions to surface. Also, numbing emotions doesn’t make them go away. Eating only numbs them for a bit and then they come back. When they do come back, they are often even more powerful than they were at first.
Stress is another cause of emotional eating. When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol. If the stressful event is short-lived, you might not have much of an appetite. However, if you continue to feel stressed, the cortisol levels will stay elevated in your body, causing an increased appetite. You will be likely to emotionally eat, store more fat, and gain weight (Johns Hopkins Medicine, n.d.). Managing stress is critical so you don’t fall into this cycle.
A survey found that Americans experience boredom approximately 131 days a year (CBS Minnesota , 2019). Lots of those people probably have weight issues since boredom is a cause of emotional eating. Numerous people turn to food when they are bored. It’s a distraction and fills in the emptiness they feel. When people are bored, they don’t even always realize they are eating. It becomes a habit, and they don’t notice that they’ve devoured an entire bag of chips or a whole pizza.
You might be surprised to learn that social influences can also cause emotional eating. You might have a friend who urges you to grab a pizza late at night or get some fries on the way home. Your friend might encourage you to celebrate every little achievement with food. You have formed an emotional bond over food with this friend, and that leads to lots of eating. You can still be friends with the person, but you have to find a way to overcome emotional eating.
Food Addiction — Another Psychological Component of Weight Gain and Loss
At one time, people thought that weight loss was just a matter of willpower. People with willpower could lose weight, while those without it would continue to lose and gain over their lifetimes. There was talk of food addiction, but it was mainly mentioned as a joke, such as, “Someone must have put something addictive in that pizza. I can’t stop eating it.”
Now researchers have realized that food addiction is real (Carolyn C. Ross M.D., 2016). It’s being compared to drug and alcohol addiction since it creates the same out-of-control behavior and feelings of shame.
If you’re addicted to food, eating triggers the reward center in your brain, just like drugs and alcohol do. However, unlike a drug or alcohol addiction, food addiction is considered a process addiction, much like gambling. You aren’t actually addicted to a specific food, such as pizza or doughnuts. Instead, you are addicted to the feelings your brain generates when you eat it.
Just like the cycle of emotional eating, food addiction has a cycle. First, you will feel the high when you eat something that your brain loves. Your brain will send a rush of dopamine that will make you feel good. It will also associate the food with the feeling.
Before long, the high will wear off and you’ll enter what is referred to as the slump. Behaviors that used to bring joy, such as going out with friends, are no longer as much fun. They simply cannot replace the high you feel when you eat. You could end up feeling stressed, irritable, or depressed when you’re in the slump.
That’s when the craving will kick in. Your brain makes you crave food, so you can get that high again. Then you end up eating to get the high, and the cycle goes back around again. Just like any other addiction, the high will become less powerful over time, but the cravings will become more intense. This can lead to considerable weight gain.
Changing Your Eating Habits — The Psychological Approach for Emotional and Addictive Eating
The American Psychological Association provides tips that people should follow to change their eating habits (American Psychological Association, n.d.). These tips will help you address the psychological reasons you’re overeating, so you can lose weight and keep it off. Fortunately, these behaviors can be addressed through journaling, so you can begin the process immediately.
Monitoring Eating Behaviors
Psychologists recommend monitoring your eating behaviors as part of your weight loss plan. They’ve discovered that people who keep a daily food log have more success at losing weight. The log should go beyond including the food that you eat. You also need to write down when you ate it and what you were doing at the time. The more comprehensive your food journal is, the more successful you’ll be.
Tracking Your Activity Level
Your activity level also plays a role in how successful you’ll be at weight loss. Psychologists recommend that you track your activity level each day. Even if you use an activity tracker, you should also record your physical activity in your journal. Record the activity, how long you engaged in it, and your mood before and after. This information can help you stay on track to reach your health goals.
Eating Regular Meals
If you miss meals, you can end up causing your metabolism to slow down. Eating regular meals is needed to lose and maintain a healthy weight. Journaling can help you make sure you’re eating at the right time each day. You can look over your journal entries, and if you notice you aren’t eating at regular intervals, you can easily make changes.
Engaging in Mindful Eating
Failing to pay attention when you eat can cause you to take in more calories than needed. You might not even realize how much food you’re eating. Understanding your emotions through journaling is an important step in mindful eating. Then, you can take it to the next level by tracking all of the food you eat. Before long, you’ll be regularly engaging in mindful eating.
Understanding Food Associations
You probably associate certain actions with eating. For instance, if you’re sitting in front of the TV, you might find yourself reaching for the chips because that’s what you do when you watch TV. This doesn’t have anything to do with hunger. It’s just about the association you make between watching TV and eating. You can break this habit through journaling. You’ll find those associations and begin to break them. Eventually, you’ll only eat at mealtimes.
Identifying Your Emotions
The American Psychological Association recommends that people identify their emotions that cause them to overeat. That’s the foundation of journaling. You will explore your emotions so you will understand the emotional connection to the food you eat. That will make it much easier to overcome the emotions and control your food intake.
Modifying Unhealthy Thoughts and Behaviors
Journaling will help you understand your unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, so you can begin modifying them. Once you modify your habits and behaviors, you can lose weight and keep it off. Along with helping you manage your food intake, this will help your overall mental health and wellbeing.
Why Journaling About the Emotional Attachment to Food Is Helpful
Experts agree that journaling is beneficial for mental health (L Renee Watson MSN RN, n.d.). People can journal to manage anxiety, reduce stress, and deal with depression. When you journal, it helps you prioritize your problems and concerns and track your symptoms. You can also use it to identify negative thoughts and behaviors, so you can change them.
If you have an emotional attachment to food, you can enjoy these mental health benefits, as well as others that are specific to food. Let’s go over some of the specific ways journaling can help you as you overcome your food addiction.
Learn Your Triggers
If you suffer from emotional eating, you have triggers that make you more likely to overindulge (Nicole Galan, 2018). Journaling about your emotional attachment to food will help you identify the triggers. Then you can explore how these triggers impact you and come up with ways to overcome them.
Understand When You’re Hungry (And When You’re Full)
When you have an emotional attachment to food, it’s hard to know when you’re hungry and full. Journaling about your emotions will make it easier to tune into what your body is telling you. Instead of being guided by emotions, you will take the time to listen to your body. Then, you will know when you are really hungry and when you are full.
Unlock the Reasons You Can’t Seem to Overcome Emotional Eating
Journaling about your attachment to food can also help you identify the reason you can’t overcome emotional eating (PsyD, 2013). Once you know the reason, you can begin to overcome it. Let’s look at some common reasons that you might have trouble overcoming emotional eating. See if any of these reasons pop up in your journal when you explore your emotional attachment to food.
Unconscious eating is a serious problem that many people face. Often, people aren’t aware on a conscious level that they are eating. They might finish eating dinner and then continue to pick at food without realizing it or devour a bag of chips while watching TV without giving it a second thought. Often, people eat just because food is there without even thinking about what they’re doing.
Journaling is an easy way to eliminate unconscious eating. When you explore the emotions behind your choices, you begin to make conscious decisions. That means you will finally put unconscious eating (and all those extra calories) behind you.
Food as a Reward
Others overeat because they view food as a reward. Some people think it’s the only thing they have to look forward to at the end of a long day. When you unlock the reason behind this, you will realize that food isn’t the reward that you think it is. In fact, overeating causes emotional trauma that is anything but a reward. However, you might not realize that until you analyze the emotional component of your eating habits.
Inability to Tolerate Feelings
For many people, overeating is a means to bury feelings. You might not realize that you are eating because you cannot handle difficult feelings. However, when you begin to explore your emotional attachment to food, you will discover it if this is a problem. Then, you can begin to address the problems that you’ve been burying. This will help you overcome your issue with food while also dealing with important emotions. You will become emotionally healthy after you learn to stop burying your emotions with food.
Body Image Issues
Sadly, many people who emotionally eat hate their bodies. They feel shame about their bodies, so they end up eating. When you uncover this problem through journaling, you can begin to deal with it and overcome it. Journaling can help you improve your self-image and self-confidence, thus allowing you to overcome your body issues.
Engage in Mindful Eating
Research has shown act journaling leads to mindfulness (Phelan, 2018). When you journal, you can organize and confront your thoughts and emotions, leading to an increase in mindfulness. While this helps in all aspects of life, it’s especially helpful regarding eating.
Mindful eating is basically the act of being consciously aware of every bite of food you take. When you are aware of what you eat, you are more likely to savor your food and eat less. You won’t suddenly down up and realize that your plate is empty. You will be aware of every bite. Each time you journal, you will bring yourself closer to the place of mindful eating. As you work through your emotions, you will notice that you become more and more aware of the food that you eat. Eventually, you will engage in mindful eating every time you eat.
You will know that your journaling has paid off and you’ve reached the point of mindful eating when you follow these steps (American Heart Association, n.d.).
Step 1 — Ponder
First, you need to determine if you’re really hungry. This is where your emotional work will really come into play. When you journal about your emotional attachment to food, you will begin to explore the reasons you feel hungry. Step back and ask yourself if you’re hungry, bored, thirsty, or feeling another emotion.
Step 2 — Appreciate
If you’re really hungry, you can move onto the next step of mindful eating, where you will appreciate the food. Enjoy the smell of the food and look at the portion. Make sure that it isn’t too much. Are you choosing the portion size based on your emotional state? Did you make an unhealthy decision to fill a void? Make sure the food is what your body needs and not just what your emotional state craves. Again, this will be much easier to do after you spend some time working on your emotional attachment to food. You will be more aware of why you make certain decisions.
Step 3 — Eat Slowly
When you don’t eat consciously, it’s normal to shove the food in your mouth. That’s very common with emotional eating. With mindful eating, you need to eat slowly, so your brain and stomach can work together. Take a bite and put your utensil down. Chew the food, paying attention to the flavor, before eating it again. This will allow you to savor your meal.
Step 4 — Stop Eating
When you are full, you need to stop eating. You will have a much better understanding of when you are full by exploring your emotional attachment to food. Then, it will be much easier to put your fork down and walk away, even if there’s still food on your plate.
Why Tracking Food Intake and How It Affects Mood and Motivation for Weight Loss Is Important
When you start a food journal, you will also track your food intake, your moods, and motivation levels. Tracking these three things will put you on the path to success. Let’s go over some of the most important benefits you’ll receive when you track your food, mood, and motivation.
Find Foods That Improve Your Mood
Earlier, you learned about the vicious emotional eating cycle. This cycle makes you feel worse when you consume foods. What you might not realize is there are also foods that make you feel better about yourself. These foods leave you feeling energetic and happy.
Various foods are known to improve moods (Wong, 2020). You could be eating these foods or others without thinking much about it. You can easily identify the foods that give you a boost when you track what you eat and how you feel.
Find Foods That Hurt Your Mood
Certain foods can also hurt your mood. When you track your food intake and mood, you can find out which foods cause your mood to tank. That can hurt your motivation. Then, you can cut those foods out as you strive toward reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
You will identify certain triggers when you journal about your emotional attachment to food. The same is true when you track your food and mood.
For instance, you might journal about stress at work and then realize that you logged in a cheeseburger and a bag of chips 30 minutes later. If you were to flip back in your journal, you’d probably notice similar stress reactions. When you identify your triggers, you can get a better handle on them and find healthy coping options.
Determine the Right Number of Calories for You
As you analyze your moods, food, and motivation, you will notice that you have a “calorie sweet spot.” This is the number of calories that you perform your best. You can then shoot for that number instead of guessing. That means you will benefit from the optimal caloric intake for your body.
What to Include in a Food Journal
If you’re new to the world of journaling, you probably don’t know what to include. There are many components involved in a successful food journal (Katherine D. McManus, 2019).
You need to begin by writing down exactly what you are consuming. That includes how you prepared it and what condiments you added. Also, don’t forget to include your beverages when you write down your food.
Amount of Food
The amount of food you’re eating is just as important as the type of food. When you can, weigh your food for a precise amount. If you can’t weigh it, estimate the portion size, and include it in your journal.
Time You Ate the Food
You also need to note the time you consumed the food. You might start to notice some patterns when you look at the time you eat food. For instance, if you eat something at 10 p.m. every night, you’ve created a bad habit that you need to break.
Where You’re Consuming the Food
When you include where you’re consuming food, you also might find some important patterns. For example, do you tend to have a snack in your bedroom? Maybe there’s a friend’s house where you always eat, or you have started the habit of eating in your vehicle. By looking at where you’re eating, you can begin to break dangerous habits that are causing you to consume more calories than you need.
What You’re Doing While Eating
Write down what you’re doing when you’re eating to determine if you’re eating mindfully or if you’re distracted when eating. Are you watching TV when you eat? Maybe you are driving or socializing. Be as descriptive as possible.
Who You Are Eating With
You might notice that patterns emerge based on who you’re eating with. For instance, you might eat more or less when you eat alone or with your family. Write down who you are eating with so you can analyze the patterns.
Your Emotional State
Your emotional state plays a huge role in how many calories you consume. Include information about your emotional state before and after you eat. Were you anxious or lonely before you ate? How did you feel when you finished? Maybe you were happy or sad. Go into as much detail as necessary to paint a clear picture of your emotional state.
Many people forget to include their hunger level when creating a food journal, but this isn’t to be ignored. Consider your hunger level on a scale of 1–10. Where do you land? Include that in your journal, along with information regarding your hunger. Did you feel hungry immediately, or did it occur over time?
You should also consider your food cravings when you write your journal, even if you don’t give in to the cravings. If you were craving a certain food, write about it. Did you still crave the food after you ate?
Additional Tips for Your Food Journal
Now you know what to include in your food journal. Still, you might be unsure of how to begin. Look at some additional tips to help you as you begin your food journal.
Keeping a food journal has been shown to double people’s weight loss (Kaiser Permanente, 2008). The most successful people are those who are completely honest.
If you eat something, record it. Don’t tell yourself that it was just a slip-up and there’s no reason to write it down, and don’t try to convince yourself that you’ll work those calories off. The only way you’ll benefit from a food journal is if you’re completely honest. Then, you can analyze your eating patterns and begin to work on losing weight.
Some people wait until the end of the day to log items into their food journals. When the time finally comes, they can’t remember what they ate. They can give a ballpark idea, but they might forget about the mayonnaise they added to their sandwich or the extra brownie they snuck at lunch. Also, it’s hard to remember your exact moods and the rest of the details if you wait too long. Avoid this problem by setting a timer to go off shortly after your meal is finished. For instance, if you regularly finish lunch at 12:30, set a timer for 12:40 to remind you to add the meal to your food journal.
Record Nutritional Data if Possible
Start Food Journaling Today
If you have access to the food’s nutritional data, add it to your food journal. The nutritional data will give you more insight into your diet. Then, if you feel sluggish or overly hungry, you can look at the breakdown to see if you received the nutrition you needed. You’ll likely notice that you feel better on days when you eat a balanced diet.
Set and Track Goals
Goal setting is critical if you’re going to be successful at losing weight and keeping it off. You need something to strive toward, so you can get to our ideal weight. Don’t just think of a goal, though. Write it down in your journal.
A Harvard Business Study analyzed MBA graduates who had set goals. Only 3 percent of the graduates wrote their goals down. That 3 percent ended up earning 10 times more than the other graduates combined (Acton, 2017). Another study conducted by psychologist Gail Matthews discovered that people who write down goals are 33 percent more successful than those who set goals but don’t write them down (Ph.D., 2018).
It's easy to write down your goals when you journal. Write your goal down and then track it as you continue to log your food, motivation, and emotions. As you get closer to your goal, you will get more and more motivated.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to set a lofty goal at the beginning. The CDC states that losing 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can improve your health (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.). You can see improvements in your blood cholesterol, blood pressure, and more with that small loss. Then, when you reach that goal, you can set your next goal.
Starting the Process
Starting is often the most difficult part of making a lifestyle change. You know you want to do it, but you think you can start tomorrow or the day after.
If you keep putting it off, tomorrow won’t ever come. Instead of waiting another day, start your journal today. Begin logging your emotions and your food. You will start to notice unhealthy habits and make changes. Then, it won’t be long before your weight is moving in the right direction.
You can become a success story, so start journaling today!
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