The Biggest Problem with Every Food Journal I See

One thing I have all of my clients do is keep a food & activity journal. If friends email me for help accelerating their fat loss I insist they do it too. I get so many emails from listeners asking advice but not having any context of how they normally eat that I’m now doing fat loss consultations based on a 10-day food journal. And almost without fail, I am seeing the SAME thing in these food journals and it horrifies me.

It breaks my heart and it cuts like a knife EVERY time I see it. I see it every single day.

What is it? It’s not oreos or frankenfoods – it is the INTENESLY negative emotion, guilt, regret & shame associated with food. I sat down with a friend a few weeks ago after reviewing her 10 day food journal and I said, “listen – this amount of beating yourself up, feeling guilty, shame – that intensity of negative emotion is reserved for killing kittens or hitting an old lady with your car – This intensity of emotion has no place being associated with food of all things!” Good grief, I don’t care if you ate 7 pizzas and 14 pints of ice cream! It’s just food! Hear me! It is just food!!!!

I get it. You had a bad day, you made a bad decision or two or three or fifty seven. I understand and I’ve been there. And I’ve beat myself up for it – but what purpose does it serve? Does it make it better? NO WAY!!! It makes it worse! It is a vicious cycle that actually makes that behavior MORE LIKELY to happen again. Not less likely! I’m not even kidding.

Let me explain why.  Here’s the scenario. You want to lose weight. You want to burn fat. You’re motivated. You’re determined. And then you have 4 slices of pizza, a bowl of ice cream and later go scouring for cookies – which you find and devour even though you aren’t hungry.

The second the last bite is swallowed you are beating yourself up. “I suck. Why did I do that? This is why I’m fat. I’m so gross. I feel so gross. I feel awful. I have no self control. Crap, why did I DO that??? I wasted all my progress. Now I have to be even more strict. Why do I always do this? Ah! That wasn’t worth it! Why did that happen? I suck. I always do this. I did it AGAIN!!!!!” Do you understand what message you are sending to yourself? Think about it. The entire time you are feeling guilt, shame, remorse, regret, frustration – you are sending incredibly dangerous and specific messages to your brain: You failed. You are a failure. You always mess up. You always overeat. You have no self control. You fall into the same trap over and over again. You suck. You always binge when you’re stressed. You have no self control once you get started. You can’t have pizza without losing your mind.

YOU ARE ACTIVELY CREATING THAT REALITY BECAUSE OF THE WAY YOU TALK TO YOURSELF! YOU ARE MAKING YOUR BRAIN BELIEVE THAT’S HOW YOU OPERATE! So, the next time you have pizza, your brain remembers: Hey Elizabeth – you have no self control. Once you start you can never stop. You live on this slippery slope and hang on tight because you’re on it now. You always overeat. You always lose control. You can’t stop. Where are the cookies?

So….you do it again. And then the guilt starts. And then you reinforce those messages all over again! You created this belief system with your own thoughts. That’s the bad news. And the good news. Because you can create a different thought pattern and therefore a different reality.

I am going to get to how you can change this pattern, but first I want to make an important point. I do not have children yet but I hope to one day. And I know this: I was not born with negative associations towards food. I was not born to associate guilt and shame to food. That is a learned behavior. You don’t develop it on your own. You learn it from somewhere. Maybe it’s your friends, maybe it’s TV. Maybe it’s your parents. And I know I can’t control everything in my future child’s life but I know this: I will not contribute to them developing unhealthy positive or negative associations to food. If you are acting like you have to “earn” a cookie or “make up for” pizza or “feel guilty” about ice cream – your kids see that, feel that, learn that and will very likely model that. I am not condemning parents – I can’t even image how hard a job that is, but I do want everyone to be aware of how this impacts other people as well as how it impacts ourselves. Much of my struggle with obesity, food obsession and very, very unhealthy dieting practices, poor self image and depression came from inappropriate emotional associations with food that I developed from my home environment.

So what do you do? How do you overcome this? I get it – it’s a natural reaction – for years, many of us have created these positive and negative associations with food – I’m good if I eat a salad and a piece of fish. I’m bad if I have pasta and bread sticks. How about: I’m human either way and my motivation, potential and self-worth are not in any way influenced by what I eat or don’t eat. How about: I make good choices and I make not so stellar choices but I’m learning from each choice.

  • Stop making excuses and justifying the choices you aren’t proud of
    Let’s stop making excuses or trying to justify a decision we wish we hadn’t made. If you didn’t plan dinner (or your plans fell through) and you defaulted to Taco Bell – ok. Fine. So you ate taco bell. That is neither good or bad – it’s Taco Bell. Please stop with the justification and/or excuses. The “well, I just didn’t make it to the grocery store” or “it was a bad day and in the moment I just couldn’t stop myself” or “the kids were being crazy and I just broke down” – listen, it is what it is. It is Taco Bell. It is not a reflection of your self worth, discipline or potential and the justification or excuses aren’t necessary. Enjoy the meal. If you want to choose a different response next time then look at all the factors that contributed to the choice and make a plan to respond differently next time. Next time I’m going to remember that Thursdays are crazy with my schedule and I’m not as motivated or organized at the end of the week so I’m going to start doing Chipotle take out on Thursday nights or having a rotisserie chicken in the fridge to make with some sweet potatoes or putting a meal in the crockpot every Thursday morning.
  • Focus on being AWARE of your negative and positive associations with food
    I know they are deeply rooted. I know they often start going through your mind automatically and you hardly notice them. But, sometimes you’ll notice and when you do, I want you to replace them. And the more you do that, the more often you’ll notice them and the more chances you’ll have to replace them. What do you replace those unhealthy, unproductive associations with? Well, if you’re thinking – “I’m so fat. I am an emotional eater. Such and such is a slippery slope. Once I start with this, I can’t stop. I lose my control around x. I sabotage myself.” STOP THE TAPE. STOP THE TAPE. STOP THE TAPE. What do you want your brain to know about you? About your choices? About your relationship with food? Write those things down. Recite them. Commit them to memory. Flood your mind with those thoughts and affirmations and don’t you dare stop. Don’t stop. Keep going.Replace your thoughts with things like: I am strong and healthy. I’m in control of my choices. I take responsibility for every choice I make. I am motivated and I am improving every day. I am so excited to create my healthier self.
  • Make your indulgences a conscious decision
    Don’t just let it happen and respond later. Sometimes we just act on instinct and respond later. Learn to take a second to pause between your impulse to eat and the act of eating. Sometimes we let our animal brain takeover. See M&Ms. Want M&Ms. Grab M&Ms. Shove M&Ms down throat. Feel guilty. It happens in seconds. It happens without thought. Choose to create a space for thought. And the thought isn’t so that you’ll talk yourself out of the M&Ms. It’s so that you can CHOOSE them instead of just responding instinctively. You are a rational, evolved human. Act accordingly. Build in a pause. When you notice an urge or a craving, take just a second to pause and reflect. What do I want? Do I really want it? Is it worth it? Is there something I want more? If you want them, choose them and own the choice without guilt or regret. It is a choice. It just food. But, do you really want it or are you just lusting for it based on instinct? When you build in that pause, I guarantee you’ll choose “no thanks” more than you currently are because you’re allowing yourself time to pause and think about it. That’s a good thing. For me, I’ve used several different strategies to learn to pause and think. Sometimes I’ll make myself wait 5-10 minutes to see if I still want it. Or, I’ll journal for 30 second to a minute before hand. Other times, I’ll make myself stop and read my goals before indulging. If I still want it after 5 minutess or after journaling or reading my goals – great – I’ll enjoy it without guilt. Often times, just that pause and reflection time is enough to stop.

I hope this was helpful. Like I said at the start – the guilt, shame, negative emotion – they just aren’t warranted. They aren’t helping and they are holding you back. We teach those associations to our friends, our kids, our family – and that is very dangerous. Work on this. Eliminate any and all unhealthy associations. What you eat or don’t eat doesn’t make you disciplined, motivated, successful or productive – or not. It’s just food. You didn’t kill a kitten, after all.


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2 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    Elizabeth,

    Great post. I would never treat anyone like I treat myself after eating off plan.

    There are times I think I won’t do something like go food shopping or not pack snacks when I will be out for a long period of time so I will have the excuse to eat off plan.

    But the guilt and negative self talk seems to lead to more of the unwanted behavior not less.

    I like the pause, and ask the question, “Do I really want this?” “Is there something I want more?”

    Most times if I can just distract myself for 15 minutes the desire will go away.

    But there are times when the craving is deep set, haunting and will not ease.

    For me, that’s the scariest.

    Because one bite is too much and one thousand bites is not enough.

    It seems to come down to trust. Which when broke has to be earned.

    By winning small battles, not eating the bag of M & M’s or having the ability to driving past that Taco Bell builds trust within ourselves.

    I try to celebrate the little wins which usually gives me more strength to handle bigger challenges.

    I just started this yesterday. When I wake up I say to myself, “I just want to win today.” That’s all.

    Right now as I try to build that trust it’s one bite, one meal, one day.

    Thank you for your inspiration.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth Benton
      Elizabeth Benton says:

      I can totally relate. Step 1 is becoming aware of that tape playing our head that only reinforces the behavior we want to change. Step 2 is replacing those thoughts. Those are the most important thoughts. And then finally, remembering that we don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to eat “perfectly”. And as I always say, “Just for today” always beats “I’ll start tomorrow”. xo

      Reply

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