What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Last week, a new study was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which found that in a group of postmenopausal women, those who kept food journals had more success with weight loss than those who didn’t. (Other interesting facts: women who ate at restaurants most often lost less weight, and women who skipped meals lost less weight -- 8 pounds less, on average -- as well.)
It’s no secret that I think weight loss diets can be pretty destructive -- even if they do “work” -- and so I make a habit of keeping track of this sort of research. In this instance, I picked up on the major media coverage of these results, and like most diet-related coverage, the three points above were the primary takeaways, dispensed as badly wanted advice to the dieting masses: eat at home, don’t skip meals and keep a food journal.
The first two points I support wholeheartedly, regardless of context. The third is a little more complicated. In fact, I’m going to suggest that keeping a food diary may be extremely beneficial -- although not for losing weight. Conversely, I think documenting food intake can actually be an incredibly powerful step in recovering from screwed-up eating habits and an antagonistic relationship with food, for some people, anyway. I’m talking about a shame-free food journal.
"Seventeen pink-frosted donuts... one bucket Crisco... handful of Craisins..."
In the middle aughts I was spending a lot of time on Livejournal, searching out and helping to build body-positive community spaces wherever I could find room to do so and people to do it with. We constructed frameworks to talk about our bodies without shame; we invented new language, refocused old assumptions, and supported one another in coming to peace with who we were, and what we looked like.
Some of us, at this time, were also working toward reclaiming the food log. I kept many food logs during my years dieting, meticulous lists of everything I consumed -- mostly everything. Almost everything. No, not everything, not always. There was too much shame. It was bad enough to buckle under temptation and eat an extra slice of pizza, but to document it where someone else might see was unthinkable. My guilt writ large in my own handwriting, I couldn’t deny it.
Among my many childhood diets were several meal plans devised by nutritionists, drawn up in charts on forms specially designed for the purpose. The 8AM slot would say something like, “half a bagel, with 1 teaspoon fat-free cream cheese, and 8 ounces of orange juice.” There might have been a grapefruit half in there instead, but without sugar that seemed like torture. I could always put Sweet N’ Low on it, though, adding unknown synthetic chemicals to my still-developing 11-year-old body. I liked that Sweet N’ Low, truth be told, because it was mad sweet, a thousand times sweeter than sugar.
I never craved sweets in my life before I started dieting. Before I dieted, I was the kid who’d rather eat a carrot than a slice of cake.
The lunchtime slot might have a sandwich -- sliced reduced-fat turkey cold cuts on low fat bread, with fat-free mayonnaise. An apple. How long were apples ruined for me by diets? Fat-free cottage cheese. Rice cakes, for snacks. Rice cakes. Sometimes, with a tablespoon of peanut butter.
Even today when I see a weight-loss-specific meal plan, a day’s or a week’s worth of meals laid out in advance like an edible prison, I give a shudder. I frown and shift warily. Seeing those lists makes me feel like a heavy door is swinging closed, trapping me in a tiny space. A space I’ll have to lose weight -- one way or another -- before I can comfortably fit.
I first revisited the food log in 2006 (and again in 2009), around the time I was really making big progress in my efforts to unfuck my eating habits and my relationship with food, both of which were profoundly twisted by having spent so many of my early years learning to ignore natural hunger and eating what I was told with no regard for what I actually wanted or whether I was full or starving or not.
I called it the Fuck You Food Log. I wanted to see how far I’d come -- I wanted to see if I could write down what I ate, what I really ate when following my normal inclinations and hunger cues, and be okay with it.
It was strange, at first, to be jotting down “leftover cheese enchiladas” or “Special K cereal with whole milk” or “giant bowl of aloo gobi” and not have it be for a diet. to not be comparing it with a “right” way of eating I was meant to be keeping to. There was something radical about it, even. Part of my early process in successfully de-stressing eating and making peace with the fact that I require food to survive was to put as much distance as possible between me and the behaviors I strongly associated with dieting for weight loss, and food journaling was one of them. (As was owning a scale, avidly watching infomercials for weight-loss quackery, engaging in obsessive calorie math on every bit of food packaging I touched, and so on.)
What I eventually figured out was that until I dealt with those triggers, I could only get so far away from body loathing and compulsive dieting. I had to address them; indeed, I had to disarm them forever. Remaking the food log as a non-destructive behavior seemed a natural step.
Could this be triggery for some people? Hells yes. If you have a history of eating disorders or other obsessive behaviors connected to food consumption, this may not be a good idea. Or, it might be. Only you can make that determination. If it feels like it’s pulling you into a relapse danger zone, stop.
Like an oversized Tinkerbell. With groceries.
The shame-free food log has four main rules (although you can adjust these at your whim).
1. No lying. Lying begets guilt and shame, and you have no reason to feel guilty or shameful for eating something. No matter what it is. Be truthful. No one will see this but you, unless you want to share it. Maybe start a local shame-free food journaling group with your friends! Like a book club, except you don’t have to read anything and can just hang out and eat supermarket hors d’oeuvres and drink wine and talk about how great it is that you can eat hors d’oeuvres and drink wine and not feel like crap about it. And then maybe you can describe the hors d’oeuvres and wine in your journals. Does this not sound like a party you’d want to attend?
2. No self-recrimination. Arguably the most important part of this exercise is to recognize any urges to self-flagellate, accept where they come from, and let them pass. This is not a chronicle of your failures; you must not look at your food journal to remind yourself how out of control you are. If these things are happening and you can’t stop them, abandon ship. But if you can, if you can feel yourself beginning to struggle and cut that self-doubt off, reminding yourself that it’s just food -- it’s only food -- then you might benefit by the practice of foodly self-compassion.
3. Specificity is at your own discretion. If you are a person for whom documenting volumes and calories is bad news for your brain, then don’t be so meticulous. The second I start weighing or measuring things I get in a negative place, so instead of documenting that I ate 3 ounces of fresh goat cheese from the farmer’s market (really guys, I would kiss these goats if I could; I would send them flowers) I might say I ate “as much goat cheese as I was hungry for” or “a smallish handful of unshelled pistachios” or “enough ice cream to make me not mind the awful heat.”
4. Finally: Be poetic. Be mindful. For many of us, food is so fraught with negative connotations that we forget how to enjoy a meal. Sometimes we even lose the ability to tell if we actually like something.
I ate a mini Butterfinger candy bar for the first time in years last Halloween, Butterfingers being one of those foods classified as “PROFANE AND UNHOLY” on the ranking of good and bad foods I carried around for years in my head. I went at it with the same mindfulness I dedicate to most food these days, and I was surprised to realize it was practically inedible.
This is not to pass universal judgment on Butterfingers; if you like them, I will high-five you on whichever of your hands is not crusted with sticky orange flakes. I like lots of foods (Miracle Whip!) that others find abhorrent. My point is that I had been so focused on thinking of Butterfingers as evil that somehow I had come to associate “evil” with “extra delicious” and thus I had never dealt with my unthinking assumption that they tasted good to me.
For any kind of peaceful relationship with food, it is critically important that we allow ourselves to taste what we are eating. You eat enough Chicken McNuggets in your life, you come to taste your expectation of them as much as the food itself. And because Chicken McNuggets, like everything at McDonald’s or any other fast-food chain, is thought to be bad food eaten by bad people, it’s the kind of thing we’re likely to scarf down at speed, ideally so quickly that we’re barely aware of what’s passed our palate, and can forget we indulged in them at all.
On the other hand, if you take a moment to actually savor the McNugget, you might find they really are fucking delicious. Or disgusting. Whatever. It’s up to you -- you decide what tastes good. No shame in liking what you like.
Being poetic with our food journaling means cultivating an awareness of what we eat -- everything we eat. It also helps us to realize that eating delicious food is one of life’s true pleasures. It’s true that eating well is often a privilege not everyone can afford, but if it’s at all possible to eat food you honestly like -- even if it comes from a drive-through window -- then do so, and allow yourself to like it.
The shame-free food log also has two central principles that should guide the whole endeavor, and without which the whole project falls apart.
1. It’s OK to eat. Honestly, this is non-negotiable. Eating is non-negotiable.
2. It’s OK to eat what you want. Whatever you want. Until you’re full.
I still go back to the food log every couple of years, if only because it’s a solid opportunity to be more conscious of what I’m eating in that moment, and also to remind myself of how far I’ve come from the days when I chronicled my peanut-butter-on-a-rice-cake consumption in a glitter-bedecked Garfield notebook. Not all of us can just take for granted that we know how to eat, and that we can recognize and trust our naturally occurring inclinations toward food.
Today, if I eat an apple or a rice cake, it’s because I genuinely wanted one. It’s unfortunate that I need to feel proud of that, but such can be the life of one who grew up on diets.