Could Journaling be the Missing Link in Your Wellness Journey?
I remember how hopeless I felt in December 2016 after a follow-up appointment with my doctor. I’d had lab work done after several months of not feeling well, and I was thinking about my daddy, who had endured his first quadruple bypass when he was my age. I had already gotten two knee replacements due to a degenerative joint disease, and the extra weight I carried certainly didn’t help; I was approaching 300 pounds at the time. I remember sitting at home with several medications the doctor had prescribed to me—medications for elevated cholesterol, hypertension, hypothyroidism, prediabetes, and a connective tissue disorder. I had been sick off and on for several years, but that day, the revelation that I was destined to follow in my father’s footsteps terrified me. I remember feeling overwhelmingly sad as I contemplated which of my children would end up taking care of me in the not-too-distant future. Luckily, I also remembered reading a book that spoke of how a plant-based approach could heal the body in many ways.
Over the next several weeks, I watched the documentaries Forks Over Knives and PlantPure Nation, read The China Study and several other books, and consumed everything I could find on this possible intervention to my health issues. Could this approach really help me get better? Was there hope that I wouldn’t endure the same fate as my daddy had?
My health improved quickly. That February, I found a doctor who supported my nutritional approach and decreased or eliminated all of my prescriptions with the understanding that I would continue to adhere to a low-fat, plant-based diet. I was so lucky to find her. By that summer, I was off all of my medications, I had lost about 30 pounds, and I enjoyed much better lab results. For example, my A1C went from 6.3 to 5.7, my triglycerides and cholesterol were within the normal ranges, and my blood pressure was under control. The only medication my doctor wanted me to consider taking was the one for my thyroid, but she conceded to my resistance after discovering that I had not actually taken that drug beyond a week because I was afraid of the possible side effects.
Many plant-based authorities opine that simply eating a low-fat, plant-based diet will solve the ills of many obese people, but those like me who struggle terribly need a stronger tool to find greater and consistent success. One strategy that shows promise is the keeping of a food diary.
As I think back to those early months of my plant-based lifestyle, it’s hard to believe five years have passed since I embraced this new knowledge. I am still medicine-free, although I did have to take blood pressure medicine for a couple months until I was able to stabilize it with a short doctor-supervised water fast. Unfortunately, however, I am not yet completely in the clear. The combination of my age and my continued struggles with obesity presents a continued challenge. It is well documented that a strong association exists between obesity and hypertension.[1,2] As time progresses, if left unchecked, my weight will continue to create issues for my health, so a major priority in my life at this point is losing this extra weight.
Weight loss is not the be-all and end-all: it was not the only factor that influenced my decision to adopt a plant-based diet, and I do not think it should be considered as a replacement for overall wellness. The most important thing of all when considering dietary choices is wellness, and weight is only one component of that larger health picture. Being able to reduce my risk of disease, get off of my medications, and generally feel better all represent huge progress, and I think it’s important to remember this when we think about weight loss goals.
As I said, however, there are certain complications that arise from excess weight, and so for the purpose of overall wellness, it remains important that I address this. I am down almost 60 pounds since deciding to follow a plant-based diet, but I still have a long way to go. As of the writing of this article, my 5’5” frame is still carrying 233 pounds, which needs to be greatly reduced if I am to spare my kids from soon needing to care for me. Losing weight and keeping it off is so hard, though. I would venture to say I have lost and gained back the same 20 or so pounds for the past two years. My weight fluctuation range is very wide; I can gain as much as eight pounds after a heavy vegan takeout meal, which then takes me a couple weeks to get rid of. Whenever I have to go on steroids because of a connective tissue crisis, the weight gain is remarkable—as much as 13 pounds in just a few days. Some days, I just lose my focus and eat vegan junk food, putting back on the weight that I recently lost. It’s easy for someone to urge me to simply eat foods that are less calorie dense until the weight is gone, but after taking ten steps forward, I tend to take a few steps backward. This back-and-forth is so frustrating, but I won’t give up. The bottom line is that the only sure way to fail at this wellness challenge is to quit, and I won’t quit.
Just recently, I decided to take a long look at myself and start fresh from where I am today. I am no longer pushing 300 pounds, but I am still far from my goal of 150 pounds. I concluded that I needed to change something; I figured that if I could replace one current bad habit with a positive habit, I could possibly see substantial results in my weight again.
I chose my new habit—using a fitness app to track what I eat and help me with accountability—after reading about weight loss best practices for the past several weeks. Many plant-based authorities opine that simply eating a low-fat, plant-based diet will solve the ills of many obese people, but those like me who struggle terribly can clearly benefit from having an additional tracking tool like this. Keeping a food diary is one potential strategy for greater and more consistent success; though logging what I eat is not something I enjoy, and though I have not been successful with this strategy in the past, I decided I was at the point where I needed to deal with discomfort in order to move forward.
The first day that I began tracking was a big eye-opener for me. It led me to realize a habit I needed to eliminate. I love ramen. I love it so much, in fact, that I sometimes ate it five days a week. Because I made my own tamari, vegetable and basil broth, and added lots of vegetables to the dish, I figured it couldn’t be too bad for me. That was before I logged my recipe in this app I’m using. Doing so, I discovered that my favorite dish contains more than 2,000 milligrams of sodium, and cost me almost 800 calories. That was astonishing to me! I’m happy to say I haven’t had ramen since.
Through journaling, I also track my sodium and fiber intake. Until recently, I was ingesting too much sodium and too little fiber. I used to eat beans often, but I had let that slip when I got into the habit of eating ramen almost every day. Since I began logging, however, my daily fiber intake has consistently been over 35 grams, and I am able to keep my sodium below 1,500 milligrams.
Journaling, it seems, is one of the most successful strategies for achieving long-term weight loss.[3-4] It increases a person’s awareness of what they’re eating and helps to unveil habits and patterns of eating. A Kaiser Permanente study with 1,700 participants found that those who kept food diaries six days a week lost twice as much as participants who didn’t journal.[5-6] Keeping a food journal also encourages us to take in fewer calories.[4-5] In fact, Robera Russell, author of Report on Permanent Weight Loss, asserts that most programs that are successful with helping people achieve long-term weight loss include the self-accountability component of journaling.
I read once that we should address our challenges through a “study of one.” We should learn from our experiences and adjust whatever needs to be adjusted accordingly. Well, whenever I think of studying anything, I look for data to drive ideas, actions, and conclusions. Food logs offer us the data we need to guide our practices toward addressing our weight maintenance and, more importantly, our wellness goals. I can’t wait to write a follow-up to this article after I have practiced this strategy for a few months. In the meantime, I will embrace this new habit and make it part of my daily routine.
- Hall, J. E., et al. (2015). Obesity-induced hypertension. Circulation Research. Retrieved from https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/circresaha.116.305697.
- Jiang, S. Z., Lu, W., Zong, X. F., Ruan, H. Y., & Liu, Y. (2016). Obesity and hypertension. Experimental and therapeutic medicine, 12(4), 2395–2399. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5038894/.
- Hall, K. D., & Kahan, S. (2018). Maintenance of lost weight and long-term management of obesity. The Medical Clinics of North America, 102(1), 183-197. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5764193/.
- Russell, R. (2016). Report on permanent weight loss. Columbia Academic Commons. Retrieved from https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D8SJ1KV9.
- Hollis, J. F., et al. (2008). Weight loss during the intensive intervention phase of the weight-loss maintenance trial. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18617080/.
- McManus, K. D. (2019). Why keep a food diary? Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-keep-a-food-diary-2019013115855.
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