Can Food Diaries Encourage Eating Disorders?

April 1, 2015
eating disorders, food diaries, food obsession

Is keeping a food diary a key secret to weight-loss success? Or is it an unnecessary evil which shames participants and which can lead to an unhealthy food obsession and even exacerbate eating disorders?

RELATED: Why Lower-Carb Bread Is A Dieter’s Best Friend

A much-loved tool widely used by personal trainers, dietitians and GPs alike to aid their overweight clients, food diaries are said to be all about the power of the pen. By writing down everything you put in your mouth, and keeping track of dieting pitfalls, such as emotional eating, plus portion sizes, you’re holding yourself accountable, so the theory goes.

What’s more, various weight-loss studies have stated people who keep a food diary lose up to twice as much weight as those who don’t.

eating disorders, food diaries, food obsession

Me? I despise food diaries and find them unnecessarily militant and punitive. I’m already working out at the gym and with an ex-army commando PT up to a total of five times weekly; why do I need to write down everything I eat as well, in the manner of a naughty schoolgirl? My stubborn refusal to keep a food diary annoys my PT no end, but given we’re getting good results each month, I am sticking to my guns.

Plus, I don’t know about you, but l found that writing down everything I ate made me start to obsess about every single morsel I was consuming. Surely, that’s not healthy? I don’t want to turn into one of those godforsaken calorie counters who can’t enjoy their food!

Call me a hedonist, but I quite like eating and drinking! I enjoy nourishing my body and eating treats, from time-to-time. For all these reasons, I recently put down my pen and stopped my nightly food diary entries, which were both time-consuming and annoying. And while I can see that it’s a good weight-loss tool for some, it just ain’t for me.

Sunshine Coast freelance journalist and mum of two Penny Shipway, 33, concurs – she too feels weight-loss or food diaries promote unhealthy food obsessions. “I’ve dabbled in food diaries in the past and found that not only were they short-lived, they were uninspiring and laborious,” Mrs Shipway says. “I didn’t want to become too obsessed with food – food is something to be enjoyed and savoured not something to be overly scrutinised and stewed over.”

So, what do the experts say? Here’s a round-up of pros and cons from health and exercise professionals to help you decide if food diaries are for you.

eating disorders, food diaries, food obsession

The PT: Scott McKay from Jungle Fit, Caloundra, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, who’s also my long-suffering PT:

“Food diaries are good for client accountability and they help you identify your shortfalls and areas you need to work on,” Scott says.

The dietitian: Leading Sydney dietitian, nutritionist and author Susie Burrell (pictured):

“I let clients decide if they want to keep a food diary or not. This way, they are in charge and directing their intervention which is what self-determination theory suggests,” Susie says.

“But for individuals who are low in self-regulation, or need to be more mindful of their eating behaviours, food diaries can assist with this, if they too think it will be helpful.”

eating disorders, food diaries, food obsession

However, the busy dietitian warns that severely restricted eating strictly recorded in food diaries – in response to western society’s obsession with everything thin and beautiful – can have catastrophic, long-term effects on young women’s body image, self-esteem and the prevalence of eating disorders, particularly in the teenage population.

She also cautions against an increasingly common condition in teenage girls – orthorexia. “Orthorexia was first described by an American doctor in the late 1990s, who was seeing an increasing number of female patients who were exhibiting a number of eating disorder related symptoms, including eating only an extremely limited food variety, and maintaining an extremely low body weight without satisfying the criteria for a clinical eating disorder,” Susie says.

“These girls were obsessed with only consuming foods that were ‘pure’ and ‘healthy’, and as a result tended to consume only extremely low-calorie, unprocessed foods, which in turn kept their body weight extremely low.

“Unlike sufferers of a clinical eating disorder, these girls were not malnourished, as their diets were packed full of nutritious food choices, but in many cases their mood state was low either a result of a low food intake or a result of other stressors in their lives such as school issues caused by a clinical depression.

“I have seen four teenage girls who too have presented in private practice with such symptoms. All cases have been teenagers between the ages of 14-16, from middle-class family backgrounds attending good schools.

“All girls have been classified as ‘very intelligent’ but struggle socially with the pressures only teenage girls experience from peers: the lure of boys, the pressure to achieve at school and to look good.

“A trigger, either family distress or negative interaction at school appears to be a common link with all cases, leading to depressed mood and the desire to be in control of as many other variables in their life as they can, such as their food intake and the way they feel about their body.

“From a clinician’s perspective, this is a challenging situation. The girls are underweight, but not unhealthy and their eating patterns are disturbed, without being clinically disordered.

“Unfortunately, the powerful media images of health and beauty are unlikely to disappear entirely and hence the incidence of conditions such as orthorexia is likely to increase. The key for health professionals and families affected is to know how to manage it before it is too late.

“Is your diet too healthy? There is nothing wrong with healthy eating – whether your definition of ‘healthy’ includes eating low-sugar, low-fructose, vegan or ‘clean’ eating – but when diet and exercise habits negatively impact other areas of life, whether it be relationships, mood or being able to maintain a life outside of the lifestyle choice, this is when obsessively healthy eating becomes an issue.

“In these instances, such dietary restriction is only a hop, skip and jump away from a clinical eating disorder and proactive steps do need to be taken to create balance from a nutrient, exercise and general life perspective.”

eating disorders, food diaries, food obsession

The clinical psychologist, who wishes to remain anonymous:

“Food diaries can be really useful because they encourage people to be accurate about what they actually eat – if filled out honestly. It’s very easy to snack and say to yourself:  ‘That was only a couple of mouthfuls, it doesn’t count’ so you forget about it,” she says.

“But those squares of chocolate, childrens’ leftovers and tastes of dessert add up. If you write them down in your food diary, you’ll have a more accurate picture of what you are really eating, and it might come as quite a shock.

“Check back over the past week and see what you could have cut out without missing too much – nibbles that you eat absentmindedly when making making your childrens’ lunch, for example. So if you are going to keep a food diary, be thorough and honest and in those circumstances they can be very useful.

“On the other hand, there are problems inherent in keeping a food diary, especially if you have obsessive-compulsive tendencies. People who are obsessive will tend to put an unnecessary amount of thought into what they eat and it may become a source of stress, reducing your pleasure in eating. If you find that you are obsessing about food, and eating is becoming associated with negative emotions such as shame and guilt, a food diary may not be for you.”

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The body image eExpert: Christine Morgan, CEO of the Butterfly Foundation and national director of The National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC):

“Food diaries are useful for those who are trying to manage their recovery process from an eating disorder,” Christine says. “They help in recording what is eaten, assist dietitians and other therapists make sure they have healthy food choices and portion sizes. I don’t believe they cause an eating disorder. We have to remember that it is not the food diary that is the problem; it is the reason for which it is being used.

“Food obsession is never good, however I don’t believe using a diary causes or exacerbates such an obsession – it exists anyway. At the Butterfly Foundation, we only support a clinically trained dietitian or therapist who recommends a food diary.”

What do you think? Are you for or against food diaries?

Images via She Know.com, Conversations At Intersections, NY Daily News and Pixabay.

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