Food Records for Mindful Eating
One of the biggest obstacles in recovering from an eating disorder is learning how to identify and respect your hunger and fullness cues. When you deny yourself for a sustained period of time, your sensitivity to hunger cues can become altered. When active in behaviors such as restricting, one might even get an initial mood boost for denying themselves food, further complicating the mind-body disconnection. Research has shown both biological changes and shifts in emotional processing can occur in the brain when someone is malnourished. When someone suffering with an eating disorder begins eating consciously and nourishing themselves mindfully, many of these changes can be reversed. This is great news!
Food records are very effective tools for teaching someone how to identify physical hunger cues and emotions around eating. At their best, sometime food records can help the individual distinguish between the two! For many, this activity provides a sense of safety, clarity, & awareness. Unfortunately, others may experience resistance due to various reasons (i.e. difficulty with completing the records with consistency, eating disorder driven fears, or unease with facing the facts through honest observations). For many, though, they are very helpful, so it is worth a try!
If you feel resistant, try setting a goal that includes a small time frame, perhaps starting with a few days. You can also look at it as an experiment rather than a forever commitment. Food records can be very insightful, providing evidence of where small, desirable changes can be implemented.
There are many different forms for keeping a food journal, so I encourage you to find one that works the best for you. There are a few book recommendations at the end of the article as well as a sample food record template for download.
Typically, food records include:
- Time, location, and type of food eaten (with approximate amounts)
- Rating level of hunger / fullness rating before and after the meal (1-10 scale). The hunger scale will help you connect with your body. Most rating scales range from 1-10. One is extremely hungry. A three is hungry for a meal and the ideal level for beginning a meal. A four is bit hungry, maybe for a snack or with a plan to eat soon. A seven is comfortably full and the ideal target for comfortable satiety. A ten is extremely and painfully full, usually only attained after an episode of emotional or binge eating.
- Rating level of urges to engage in behaviors and whether or not you engage in behaviors: restricting, binging, purging, low body image, etc.
- Any feelings, emotions that come up. When keeping my own food journal, I have noticed that an increase in anxiety completely unrelated to food can make me more vulnerable to urges.
- A description of any outstanding events, circumstances, or challenges. For example, thanks to keeping a food record, an urge to binge and purge may be able to be traced back to forgetting to pack a snack before leaving the house earlier in the day.
In summary, the main goal of maintaining a food record is to raise awareness and help identify thought and behavior patterns that lead to mindfulness around food and eating. It may be difficult to put a number to your hunger and fullness at first, and that's okay. Develop a log that fits and works for you the best. The most important thing is not to get too hungry or too full.
A dietitian, Ralph Carson, gives an excellent metaphor: "When talking about hunger and fullness I like to use the analogy of filling our car with gas. The important thing is don't let your car run out of gas and don't overfill the tank once its already full."
Meal by Meal: 365 Daily Meditations for Finding Balance Through Mindful Eating by Donald Altman
Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch