What does a food diary tell?
From a nutrition therapist’s perspective, keeping a food diary is the best way to find out what a person eats. It is impossible to guess a person’s diet based on appearances or symptoms.
The thought of writing down in a diary all the food and drinks consumed during the day divides people. Some are excited about the challenge and make observations about their eating already during the writing process. Others find the reporting as a boring and annoying task. The third human type is the one that wants to report each hempseed and the used organic food brands, thus the food enthusiasts. Then there are the busy ones, who have no time to write down anything.
For a nutrition therapist a food diary is the beginning of everything. ”It is impossible to assume anything about the diet based on appearances or even symptoms. There are huge differences between people in what they eat, and there is no average person”, says the registered Nutrition therapist in Aava Medical Centre Reijo Laatikainen.
Sometimes the doctor recommends the patient to exclude one ingredient from the diet and to add another without knowing what the customer actually eats. A nutrition therapist does not assume, but wants to know exactly. Although the filling in the diary would not succeed perfectly, the filling project guides the thinking process in the right direction. If it is not possible to write down the diet beforehand, nutrition is discussed thoroughly during the consultation.
“We all have a tendency to understate our eating."
How the person fills the food diary expresses his or her eating attitudes. A report done hastily reveals that food is not the priority in everyday life. A form filled with an extreme precision might suggest that the person has a neurotic attitude to food. Most people feel that they are filling the diary well - which is not true. The nutrition therapist knows that we all have a tendency to understate our eating. Researches show that people report 15–40 per cent less than they actually eat and drink.
”It is only human to understate the eating – we nutrition therapists also under-report our eating. The discussions in the consultations reveal the truth after the trust has been built”, says Laatikainen. ”There is something good in everybody’s diet, and with that we start the discussions. It is not my task to blame or accuse.”
The diary reveals the amounts and the contents of food, and the daily rhythm
A food diary is an extremely personal project for many people. The nutrition therapist receives diverse explanations why the person has eaten in a certain way. Children eat this and the spouse that, and there are so many snacks offered during meetings. ”I like to hear these explanations, since I want to hear how the customers live their everyday lives”, tells Reijo Laatikainen. ”For example, in a family with children it is only understandable that the household also revolves around children. Then we create a diet for the customer that is as good as possible. Food cannot be separated from the rest of the life.”
Since other aspects in life affect the eating as well, those daily aspects are also discussed during the consultations, for example, work and its features, exercise and history related to food. People are often not aware that, for example, sleep problems affect eating.
”I like to hear these explanations, since I want to hear how the customers live their everyday lives."
The nutrition therapist starts by making general observations of the nutrient intake based on the food diary. Typical challenges for us Finns are inadequate folate, vitamin D and fibre intakes. Surprisingly, low protein intake is often a problem for people suffering from being overweight. Protein reduces appetite and therefore helps to prevent eating other unnecessary things.
The food diary reveals also the quantity of food and the eating rhythm. ”For us Finns the main problem is the big portion sizes. Second helpings are commonly forgotten to be reported in the food diary. The division of meals in the daily rhythm is wrong. Breakfast is too light and no snacks are served during the afternoon, which leads to overeating in the evening”, Laatikainen has observed. However, he does not recommend the same eating pattern for everyone. Some may cope with a light breakfast, and if there are no problems in the daily life, there is no reason to make a fuss about it.
The aim of the nutrition therapist is to provide concrete individual help. Goals are always set from the customer’s starting point, advancing in small steps if necessary. Eating should not become the dominant factor in life. Only the nutrition therapist should ponder about the food issues all day long.
Text: Laura Grönqvist