Methodology: Daily Journaling to Capture History

Journaling is one of the best way for you to determine what is actually going on in your life and to have a definitive record of progress or degeneration.  That is true for everything from emotions, to food to body measurements.  Especially when one is not on some radical transformation plan, we often don’t appreciate the smaller changes which are going on in our lives.  Besides that we often don’t take the time to listen to our body and how we are feeling.  Measuring these qualitative things are very important if you want to determine changes in how you are feeling over time.

We all get sick sometimes, and we know instantly that something is wrong.  However what about a gradual change in our mood or how we feel?  Our brains are good at normalizing behaviors. That leads us to treat certain chronic conditions, or feeling a certain way over a long period of time, as “just the way it is.”  Many times it is not a matter of it just being status quo for our bodies but instead symptoms of problems which we are dealing with due to diet or lifestyle.  By tracking and trending these things you can begin to see patterns emerge and start trying to address them proactively.

My first introduction to the idea of daily tracking food came when I watched a documentary in the late-1990s on longevity that included an interview with Biospherean Roy Walford .  Walford was one of the eight people that went into the first (and only) two year experiment.  As a doctor he would be there in case there were minor medical problems that needed attending to, however he was also there in order to study the biomarkers of the other biosphereans with him.  One of Walford’s claims to fame, besides living in biosphere for two years, was the study of human longevity, especially the belief that living permanently on a calorie restricted diet (1500 calories a day or so) one could live well into your 100s.  There was evidence of that in mice studies and anecdotal evidence of that, to some extent anyway, in some geographic pockets around the world.  However Walford turned himself, and others, into a grand human experiment to try to prove the theory right.

One of the tools he needed was a means of religiously calculating the daily macronutrient and micronutrient intake from his and his test subject’s diet.  He realized that it wasn’t just a matter of calories but also nutrients.  In the modern internet era where we have over a dozen such tools to come by that is something accessible to every person.  Back in the day however it took someone to write a custom program for you, which is exactly what Walford did.  I remember Alan Alda and Roy talking back and forth about his theories, watching Walford eating this huge salad and then them both entering in what they had for lunch: Roy his big salad and Alan some standard diet fare.  After they did that bar charts of all their nutrients came up. Roy’s was well balanced and had lots of vitamins and minerals.  Alan’s was pretty anemic in that regard except for one bar that was much larger than the others.  Alan pointed that out and said something like, “Well I did pretty well on that one nutrient.”  Roy pointed out that one nutrient was Sodium.

The engineer in me loved the idea of being able to do that same thing.  This was in the days before Google and even AltaVista was a newer way of searching the web.  So I took to Yahoo searches and USENET group searches to try to find how I could do the exact same thing.  First stop was finding Roy’s website or contact information to try to get a copy of that program (the site is actually still up and you can see it in its late-1990s glory including screenshots)At first it was unavailable, then it was available but for a fee that I would never be able to come up with.  It had mentioned that it used the USDA food database, so being a programmer I figured I could download and start coming up with my own program.  Unfortunately data like that was a lot harder to come by back in the day so after a while of thrashing around that idea I just gave up.  I went back to just watching what I ate, sometimes writing it down, but not being able to really track it.

If you fast forward to around 2002-2003 I was still obsessed with the idea of doing this thing.  I don’t recall how I found it but I tripped across a great website called  This tool did exactly what Roy’s did, but it was on the internet and free.  I immediately signed up and started using it.  At first I only used this tool when I would go on my “fitness plans.”  These fitness plans were modeled off of The Body For Life program published by Bill Phillips.  I liked the idea of making sure I was getting all the proper nutrients while eating these relatively light calorie meals.  I didn’t bother tracking during my weekly “free days” where I would binge on whatever I had deprived myself of during the week.  That would literally include things like eating a slice of cheesecake for breakfast, a pizza for lunch and just munching on candy and other things throughout the rest of the day.  I was more tunnel visioned on the interim weeks.  Every time my weight would yo-yo up I would go on one of these fitness plans, dutifully track everything and then when I was done I’d go back to status quo.

Starting on January 1st, 2011 I decided to try something new.  Rather than just track foods and exercise (for total calorie balance) daily during a “fitness plan” I would just start doing it every day, forever.  Since I had been doing it on and off again for years I had the system down and it didn’t take me long.  I had tried “mindful” eating so I had hoped this would lead me to losing me get from my then-overweight state of 198.5 pounds down to the 170s where I feel healthy.  Sure enough by that summer I was down to 179 pounds and for the first time in my entire life I have stayed between 170 and 180 pounds for a consistent period of time.  At this point I could probably just go off the journaling and keep it, since I’ve reached a natural equilibrium point with my eating, but having all that data is just great for me.  Along with tracking all the foods I’m eating and the activities I’m engaging in, I also track all the exercise I do and my mood on any given day.

Mood is broken up into seven categories: happiness, energy, hunger, stress, anger, health and mental clarity.  Each is rated on a five point scale that goes from: extremely negative, negative, neutral, positive, extremely positive.  So for example, yesterday I was feeling under the weather, had to deal with crappy literal weather and a somewhat stressful job schedule.  I therefore was feeling a bit out of it, not feeling good and overall wasn’t happy.  My rating for that day is: neutral happiness, neutral energy, hungry, neutral stress, neutral anger, sick and confused.  Last week I had a stressful work day but overall was feeling good so rated that day as: unhappy, energetic, satisfied, stressed, angry, very healthy and very clear minded.  The day before yesterday on the other hand was nearly perfect: very happy, energetic, very satisfied, very calm, very peaceful, very healthy and very clear minded.

By tracking all of these things daily I can begin to see trends in data which may or may not be apparent.  For example, I always believed that I would feel the need to eat more when I was really stressed out.  Since I can graph three years worth of daily data on how I feel and what I’m eating I can see that sure enough that is exactly the case.  I can also see a trend in my levels when I start eating too much crap or too much food.  Again, it’s one thing to notionally believe this.  It is another to have data to back it up.

This daily tracking is going to be indispensable in determining which diet or diet trends work for you.  While it would be great if all my markers over the past three years had always been crap and then magically on one of these diets they would magically flip themselves, that’s not the calculus that is going on.  Over the three years there has been a definite improvement in all of these markers.  All of them.  What I’m then going to be looking for is if I am on average more hungry, or more stressed, not feeling as healthy or energetic on one versus the other.  Combining this with the nutrient data may provide a clue to if it is because I’m not getting enough of some nutrient or if the balance of protein, carbs and fat from one diet to the other dramatically changes things.  In the end it could just be some unmeasurable thing that is changing how I feel on these diets.

Since it is in my nature to do this and enjoy it, it actually becomes a bit of a game for me, I intend to do this for the foreseeable future.  For someone trying to figure out what is working for them or not, I would say they would only need to do it to get themselves stabilized into a certain eating regiment and then can do it if they start feeling a little off.

So the methodology summary is: I’m going to be tracking everything I’m eating, all my exercise and my moods on a daily basis throughout the entire experiment and then compare it against my three year baseline of the same data from before the experiment.

PS, I thanks to the internet I found the video I was talking about on YouTube. You can watch it here. I’m amazed at how well I remember that thing from so long ago!