Health · Lifestyle

Why I Keep a Food Diary

In January, I decided to start keeping a food diary. Was I worried about calories? No. I really don’t eat much so I know I hadn’t been overeating. What concerned me was the content of the food: sugar and sodium, specifically. These two things are in almost everything and I’d become worried about how much of each I was consuming.


Now that I’m 40, I need to be more careful about my diet. While I’ve never had problems in the past, there is a family history and I need to take my health seriously. It’s easier to prevent health problems than be treated for them down the line.

How I Started

I’m a huge fan of Excel so of course I chose this method of recording everything I was eating and drinking. Excel has the added benefit of making it easy to copy and sum data so I’m not doing the same calculations over and over,  which is perfect since I have a fairly steady rotation of meals that I eat. Just copy and paste and excel automatically sums to give me the totals.

What I Tracked and the Metrics Used

For each day, I’d write a description (one line per meal or snack), the grams of sugar, milligrams of sodium, and total calories. While sugar and sodium were my focus, there was little added effort to include calories. It reaffirmed that my calorie intake wasn’t excessive, which was great to see. My goal was to keep any added sugar (e.g. whole fruit omitted) to 25 g and sodium to 1500 mg. My calories typically come in around 1500-1700/day so anything higher than that would raise a red flag.

What I Found

Yikes. I was right — the amount of sugar and sodium in my diet was excessive and appalling. On day 1 (a Monday) I was consuming 43 g of sugar and 1905 mg of sodium! The scary part is that I don’t drink soda and didn’t have any alcohol. This was just food. I made changes starting the next day, including cutting out the sugary oatmeal and opting for lower sodium foods I had on hand. Day 2 I came in at 24 g of sugar and 1330 mg of sodium. Much better.


Grocery shopping that first weekend, after tracking my meals for 5 days, was really tough. It’s hard to find low sodium and low sugar options. My body doesn’t tolerate artificial sweeteners so the only option is to cut out sugar completely. I was able to find low sodium condiments and chips but these still have more than I’d like and choices are few and far between.

Eating out is also a big problem. Restaurants aren’t required to post nutritional information on their menus so it’s kind of a guessing game as to which items appear to be low sugar and low sodium (or at least low compared to the rest of the menu). I only eat out once or twice a week so I consider those to be wasted days, as far as data is concerned, and try to do the best I can.

End Result

This has created a huge lifestyle change. I finally read food labels and actually know what they mean. It’s also beefed up my meal planning, to ensure I stay within my limits for each day. At some point I’ll stop recording my meals, since I’ll get a rotation down and have a better feel for which meals are higher in sugar and sodium than others, so I know which foods shouldn’t be eaten in the same day. While I don’t feel much different, my hope is that I stave off any future health problems by making these small changes now.

Have you ever kept a food diary? If so, what surprised you most?

6 thoughts on “Why I Keep a Food Diary

  1. I’m in the same boat. I would hate to see the actual numbers, so I haven’t yet done such an exercise. This might just be the kick in the pants that I need. I am so not 20-years old anymore and you are right about preventing a disease as opposed to treating one. Great job on taking charge and making positive changes!
    Mrs. Mad Money Monster recently posted…Our Frugal Approach To Pet OwnershipMy Profile

    1. Thanks Mrs. MMM! It’s definitely scary seeing those numbers for the first day. And I’ll admit I still struggle when going out to eat. But if I can eat well 90% of the time, I’ll take that as a win 🙂

  2. Oh man, this makes me paranoid about all of the crap I eat! I know for a fact that my sugar intake is super high (damn you, sweet tooth). For me, I think it’s led to a change in what processed items I’ll buy at the store. We’re increasingly making our own sauces, condiements, soups, etc., which usually are sodium bombs if you get them at the store.
    I don’t keep a “food diary,” per se, but we do keep a meal plan. I know for a fact that I could be eating better, but I’m just a lazy blob about it.
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…Money Lessons I Did and Didn’t Learn as a KidMy Profile

    1. I really need to work on making more things from scratch. In addition to your grocery shopping book, have you considered publishing your recipes? I’m amazed at how much you make from scratch! Someone like me could definitely use that.

  3. These are exactly the two metrics I would track, too. My family has a history of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, and like Mrs. MMM said above, I’m becoming acutely aware that I’m not an “invincible” 20-year-old anymore. I do pretty well at avoiding processed sugars (I just don’t order or buy stuff like that very often), but I’ve also been eating a ton of restaurant food lately, which is awful for sodium intake. EVERYTHING is doused in salt. Thanks for the reminder to keep an eye on it!
    Matt @ The Resume Gap recently posted…What to Do With a Financial Windfall?My Profile

    1. Isn’t it scary how much sodium and sugar is in everything? It’s made me a label reader for sure. I just wish that Minnesota required restaurants to post nutritional information so I was able to track those metrics while eating out. The pizza I had in our company’s cafeteria yesterday had over 1000mg of sodium. In a tiny cheese pizza! Who would have guessed?

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