Food Journaling for Self-Care

Food and eating are both hot button issues in our current social climate. Between diet culture, increased nutritional knowledge, and increasingly globalized food choices, it can be overwhelming to figure out what to eat. Enter my April self-care challenge: eating for self-care.

There will be some modifications to this challenge for primarily tube fed individuals included later on. I could not figure out how to include people on TPN, and I do apologize for that.

Gray haired man in a gray suit holding a banana as if it was a gun and making a "grr" face.
Accurate representation of “diet culture.”

Every single body is different. Even if we all ate exactly the same things, exercised exactly the same ways for the same amount of time, and slept the same amount every single night, we would still all be different sizes and shapes! If we did everything the same, some of us would be very ill, some would feel amazing, and the rest would be somewhere in between. Why? Because no two bodies have the same requirements.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor a registered dietitian. This post is not medical advice. Please discuss diet changes with your personal doctor to make sure you’re getting adequate daily nutrition and not causing harm to your body.

This means that while a paleo diet may work wonders for some people, other people may do better with a different diet. So, how do you figure out what to eat? It takes a little work, but it can be well worth it! Before we get to the nitty-gritty, here are some “one size fits all” tips for success:

  • Do not deprive yourself. If you’re obsessed with ice cream, and cannot give it up, don’t! Unless you’re severely allergic to the ingredients in ice cream (in which case, you probably aren’t eating it anyway), a small amount every now and then won’t kill you. Find an amount that works for you, and stick with that as best as you can. However, if your friends are going out for ice cream, then go ahead and go with them if you want to! One of the best ways to fail at something is to deprive yourself of things that make you happy.
  • Get creative! If you love pizza, but cheese and gluten cause you to have horrendous stomach cramps and diarrhea, then experiment with vegan cheeses and gluten-free crust options! With a little creativity, and thanks to the increasing awareness of food sensitivities, there are options that can satisfy/reduce your cravings without causing you pain.
  • Abandon guilt. If you eat “off your diet plan” occasionally, it can be easy to feel guilty. Try your best to stop that. You know (or you hopefully will after this challenge) what foods cause symptoms and what symptoms those are, and you have made an educated decision that the flavor or atmosphere is worth the symptoms. There’s no need to feel guilty about putting your mental health ahead of your physical health for a meal.
  • You decide how strict you are going to be. This is important. Don’t let society push you around and make you feel forced to stick with the meal plan constantly. However, if you want to eat on your meal plan every single meal of every single day, then do that! You can decide how strict or how loose you want to follow the guidelines, and only you! Even if you’re eating the meal plan with someone, you each get to choose how closely you follow it. For example, when we’re eating together at home, Dan and I tend to be pretty strict about my medical diet. When Dan’s eating at work or when we go out to eat, he can eat anything he wants to (except nuts, he skips those because if he eats them he can’t kiss me again until he’s brushed his teeth).

Now, on to how to figure out what your personal needs are with food. Because, how can you feel your best (which is the goal of self-care, after all) if you’re consuming foods that you don’t realize make you feel crummy? (Tubie modifications below.)

Short answer: Keep a food diary.

The thought of keeping a food diary can be overwhelming. I avoided it for as long as possible, until my dietitian said I had to so we could track one of my medical diets. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming anymore! Here’s an easy way to use your smart phone to keep a food diary:

  • Sign up for a free Health Storylines account, here. Then download the app.
  • If the “Food Diary” tool wasn’t automatically added to your tool list (the automatically added tools are based on what you filled out in your profile), scroll through the list of tools until you get to “add tools.” The Food Diary tool is available in the “Food Nutrition” section of the tool library. Click on Food Diary then click “add.”
  • From the app’s home screen, click on the Food Diary tool.
  • Once in the tool, you can take a picture of your meal, write a description of the meal, record symptoms, and add other notes. Click save once you’re done filling it out.
  • Once you’ve filled it out, you’ll be taken to the journal page. This is where you can look back over your entries and hopefully identify trends (like: “every time I eat onions, I get gassy and have abdominal pain”).

Feeding tube modification:

  • There are a lot of different formulas available for tube feeding. While you may not have access to all of them, based on your supply company and other restrictions, you can likely request at least a few different formulations from your supply company. Use the Food Diary tool to keep track of what you try.
  • Take a picture of the ingredient list on the package and log the full name in the written description. Be sure to log your symptoms whenever you hook up (and about halfway through log another “meal” so you can see if your symptoms change).

This way, if you trial four or five formulas, you can see what symptoms you were having and can check for overlapping ingredients that may be causing them!

As I mentioned earlier, I am currently under the supervision of a registered dietitian. My dietitian helps me to find what works best for my body, and minimizes my symptoms. If you’re medically complex, I recommend looking into a dietitian and seeing if you have insurance coverage for one. (Make sure they’re a “registered dietitian” or “registered dietitian nutritionist” because those are federally regulated titles. “Nutritionist” by itself could be anyone that read a diet book and decided they wanted to start telling everyone about it. You can learn more about the difference here.)

One important thing my dietitian has told me: food based reactions could be delayed by as much as two full days. (If you have significantly delayed motility, you could react far past the two days.) Food based reactions could also be based on quantity of food in a time period.

An example of these delays is how I react to chicken. If I have a small serving of chicken once a month, I have little to no reaction. However, if I have a small serving of chicken three times in one week, my eosinophilic esophagitis will cause my esophagus to swell shut and I’ll choke on my food. Therefore, I restrict my chicken intake. It took us almost five years before we were able to figure out that chicken was causing the problem.

If the symptoms you’re tracking don’t seem to follow a pattern, try looking a few days before the symptoms. For example, you can’t figure out what is causing your abdominal cramping, as it seems to come on after meals with no common ingredients. When you look back, you realize that two days before the most recent cramping episode, you had a banana. Sure enough, looking back further shows you had bananas one or two days before every single cramping episode!

These reaction delays are part of what makes keeping a food diary so beneficial! By keeping a food diary, I was able to figure out that I react poorly to turmeric in large quantities (supplements, or if I eat meals containing it every day for a few days in a row) and that it increases my body-wide inflammation! An atypical reaction, as it’s touted as an anti inflammatory herb, that I never would have identified without the food diary.

Once you identify your triggers, you can fine tune your intake so that you feel your best! And, isn’t feeling your best what self-care is all about?!

Be sure to share your journey using the hashtag #FLSSselfcare so that we can cheer each other on! Were you surprised by any of your food diary discoveries? (Share in the comments!)

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