Why a Food Diary is The Secret to High Performance

Food Diary

When I was 20 years old, I heard one of my mentors say, “Nutrition is as powerful as a drug.”

As you can imagine, it was a controversial statement. But today, we know that poor diet decisions can harm our bodies with some of the most toxic chemicals out there.

I’ve struggled with poor diet decisions myself. There was a time when I thought I was being healthy—downing Coke Zero and eating mass-produced protein bars—but in reality, I was poisoning myself.

Here’s why this matters: Our diet, rooted in sound nutrition, is the key to energy. High and consistent energy levels mean high performance.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “Craig,” you ask, “what the heck IS good nutrition these days? There are so many opinions. Why can’t the experts just agree?”

Great question. I wish the experts could agree, but they can’t—because your results and your best program are specific to you.

The good news is, it’s relatively easy to figure out what diet you need to implement to maximize your energy. And it starts with a food diary.

How to Start—and Keep—a Food Diary

I discovered the power of the food diary in 1999. I was a young graduate student then, and finally taking diet as seriously as I did exercise. As part of my program, I was involved in several studies that required me to maintain strict food journals. The studies were pretty complex, but at the end, I had a simple realization that was supported by data in my journal: Different portion sizes and nutrients led to dramatically varied muscle development.

Clearly, diet had an impact on my physical health. But what I noticed more than muscle mass was energy—and, in some cases, the lack of energy. Naturally, your physical goals are unique to you, but there’s a baseline for asking the right questions to ensure your diet maximizes your energy levels. Here are some guidelines for getting started on your own life-changing food diary:

  • Every day, record what you eat in a diary. It’s best to hand-write this and make it part of a daily routine.
  • Be specific (but not too specific) about what you’re eating. When do you eat and how much? What is your reaction to the foods that you eat (fatigue, increased energy, laziness, hyperactivity, etc.)?
  • At the end of the week, input these foods into an app that tracks all the nutrients and calories for the foods you consume. I like MyNetDiary and My Food Diary, but find one that works for you.
  • Research your ideal daily caloric and nutrient intake for your gender, height, and weight. How do these numbers compare to what you’re actually consuming?
  • After 2-3 weeks, start drawing some conclusions. What’s negatively affecting your energy? What’s giving you more energy? Numbers don’t lie. When you see the ideal numbers and the real life numbers side-by-side, it’s clear what you need more of and what you need to cut.

Building a Routine Around Diet

When you first commit to a food diary—and a diet overhaul—start by removing your biggest temptations. Here are some baseline questions:

  • What do you typically snack on? Am you tempted by sweet desserts and breakfast pastries? Solution: Get them out of the house. If these are things you pick up during your day, change your route so you’re not tempted as you walk by the bakery or café.
  • Do you often pick up junk food when you’re grocery shopping? Solution: When you go the store for groceries, prepare ahead of time by making a list. You’ll be less tempted to buy treats and unhealthy snacks if you have a list to stick to.
  • Do you pair certain activities with junk food, like watching TV? Solution: Change your routine. Watch TV in a different room so you break the association of TV and junk food.

The good news is, it’s relatively easy to figure out what diet you need to implement to maximize your energy. And it starts with a food diary.

Next, be conscious of your reactions to your current and changing diet. Remove and add foods slowly so you can see the effect they have on you and record this in your food diary. When you have removed your primary temptations, then start examining how (and what) you eat. Here are some questions I have asked myself to help improve my diet and energy:

  • Do I function best when I have 3 meals a day, or more?
  • Would my energy level benefit from a periodic fast (12-16 hours)?
  • When is my energy level lowest? What do I eat before or after this time?
  • Is there a food group I often neglect? Is there one I consume too much of?
  • What has my doctor told me about health that might influence my diet?
  • Do I consume a lot of stimulants and depressants (caffeine and alcohol)?

Make a note of your answers in your journal and, if you can, link them to specific foods and times of day.

It also helps if someone holds you accountable. Record your meals in your journal with someone else. Share your weekly reactions and results with them. Tell them your goals (weight loss, increased energy, etc.) and ask them if they have seen evidence of these things as your diet progresses. This brings a measure of objectivity to your dieting that will help you reach your goals.

Two final pieces of advice:

  • Don’t forget to exercise regularly. If changing your diet is the goal, then keeping this consistent will mean you’re only examining one variable—what you eat.
  • If you need some extra guidance or education, consult a nutritionist. They will know better than anyone what your body needs to find the optimum nutritional balance.

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I have one final story that drives home the importance of a sound diet. Nearly 10 years ago, I made a YouTube video with my friend, Brad Pilon. It was called “Diet vs. Exercise.” We actually made 4 videos, but the one that is most popular is the one with me sprinting on a treadmill while he eats pizza and drinks soda. In 3 minutes, he ate 1,200 calories worth of pizza and soda. In 3 minutes of sprinting, I burned just over 40 calories.

Regular exercise is important, but a proper diet is essential to high performance. And it starts with a food diary.

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