Living with health problems, whatever they may be, can make you feel like you have no control. Growing up with chronic illness turned me into such a control freak...I have never really had control over my body (and now thanks to some meds less control over my mind), so I tried to control everything else that I could.
But I never made the connection between being a control freak and how to make that work for me. And so when my health took a turn for the horrendous last year, I realised that I needed to do something for myself.
Making that decision is an extremely empowering first step. From being passive in your health (I want someone to make me better) to being active (I'm going to do everything in my power to become better), you learn so much. But it's hard to do it on your own.
Deciding to do it is great...but then what? Figuring out the steps you're going to take is like entering a maze.
After months of research and many false starts, I decided on my approach. I cut out a huge amount of things, introduced daily juices and smoothies and started experimenting with high nutrient foods.
This is where my food diary came in.
Looking back at it now makes me laugh. It's a frantic, all-encompassing account of months of diet trial and error. Lines were going across pages with desperate scribbles of trying to figure out connections between what I ate, my stress levels and my reactions. Although I don't really keep one anymore (the process left me able to make most of these connections in my head), my food diary was one of my most important tools when figuring out my own personal food as medicine approach.
Being able to look (or scroll) back through the pages will help you find a great perspective on your health. It can help you figure out when things go wrong and also make you realise how far you've come. Seriously, my list of tolerated foods at the beginning of the year was almost non-existent. Now you can't get the food away from me!
There's a lot more to this journey than just what you put in your mouth, and understanding that your lifestyle, mental state and external stressors also play a huge role in your health is vitally important.
Everyone finds different methods the most helpful. But here are some tips to help you get started. If you'd like more in depth information, please do let me know in the comments - I've been thinking of creating a small downloadable resource for people to use to create their own diary!
1) Stop. Think.
Pick a start date and determine what you want to track. At the beginning you don't even need to track a change, especially if you're trying to figure out general base-level triggers. Also prepare yourself to make a commitment to keeping this diary.
2) Pick your medium
Are you a paper or a tech person? Well, I guess you can be both. I certainly am! Deciding the method that you want to record your journey is super important. It needs to be one that you're happy to be constantly using over a long period of time.
There are benefits to both. Tracking in a notebook allows you to draw lines and scribbles to help you try and visually make connections between what is going on.
However, if you don't really carry a notebook around with you, you may start missing things when you forget to track. This is why I started keeping my diary on Evernote. You can get it to sync across all your devices, so if I was out and I was stuck on the tube with no water, I was able to note down my symptoms and then reactions. I probably would have forgotten to do that when I got home between the complaining and the exhaustion!
3) Write down everything!
As I mentioned above, it's not just about the food that you eat that plays a role. The medications and supplements you take, your mood, what you're doing that day and your stress levels all play a role in how you feel. I know, for example, that if I'm super miserable and stressed and cold and yuck I'm infinitely more likely to react to something than if I was happy and carefree.
Here are things that I tracked daily:
- Time I woke up. How I felt.
- Any medication/supplements/how I felt
- What I ate (specifically each ingredient - so important if you're trying to figure out food reactions)
- What I was doing throughout the day and how it made me feel
- Any reactions that happened at any point in the day - remember, while we often get immediate reactions to certain triggers, many can take hours or longer to show
I kept everything marked with time stamps and tried to start making connections between them. The more detail you include, the more you'll be able to figure out!
4) It's not about calories
Many of us grew up with that horrid cycle of calorie counting and feeling the pressure to restrict calories to lose weight, and the first introduction we may get to a food diary is one that encourages us to count our calories. One thing I constantly had to remind myself (especially on days I was super reactive) was that in order to use food to heal I had to eat!
5) Cut yourself some slack
Healing takes time and patience. And that's something you'll have to learn to accept. Just because you've started tracking things, it doesn't mean that it will suddenly become easier and you'll have all the answers. I certainly self-sabotaged a lot (but I think that's ok and totally important - more to come on that soon!) but the diary (and my Instagram account) became a way of helping me feel more responsible about what I was doing.
Taking the time you need to figure out why you need to figure out is fine. Don't feel like you have to suddenly become an angel overnight. I'm still not and I'm still figuring out some stuff in terms of my diet and my lifestyle. But over time you will become more aware of what you need to do. I promise. It's just finding what works for you, not what anyone else (even me ;)) tells you.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find an app that was good as a general lifestyle tracker. Fortunately, I've been lucky enough to find out about an amazing new app called Flaredown, which is there to help us track and decode our 'flares' by collating all this information and doing the hard work for us! Please check them out on Indiegogo and support them if you can. I honestly wish it was around when I first started, and I can't wait to use it once it's released to the public.