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Binge-eating: Tips for writing an emotional food diary

Updated: Mar 14

Not able to Journal shortly after eating - take a photo

In my previous article, ‘What is binge-eating? Breaking the chains of emotional eating’ I mentioned the use of journal writing as one of the strategies to help understand what is going on. This article looks at the practical steps of how to create and then how to get the most from your journal, including examples of what patterns you might discover that may help you gain insight into your own emotional eating. For clarity, because we are journalling about food, from this point on, I’m using the term ‘Emotional Food Diary’ instead of emotional journal. Keeping an Emotional Food Diary can be helpful for both Binge Eating and Emotional Eating. To help get a good insight, aim to complete the diary for 1 week. After that, you might want to record just the binge events or emotional eating episodes.

1. Choose the Right Media:

Select the right media for you; a physical notebook, a document on your computer or a digital app. It needs to be private and a place where you feel comfortable recording your thoughts and emotions. It should be easily accessible as you need to try and write shortly after each eating episode while the details are fresh in your mind. If this is not possible take a photo and come back to it later.

2. Set Up Your Diary:

Before starting you might want to divide your diary page into columns or rows;

Date and Time: Note the date and time of each eating episode.

Food and Drink Consumed: List all the items you eat or drink. Be specific about quantities and ingredients.

Hunger level: Rate your hunger before you started eating on a scale 1 to 5 where 1= not hungry and 5= starving. Or just say how hungry you are or if you have cravings

Emotions Before Eating: Describe your emotional state before you ate. Were you happy, stressed, sad, bored, anxious, or something else? Write down any specific events or triggers.

Emotions During Eating: Record how you felt while eating. Were you enjoying the food, feeling guilty, or feeling out of control? You may also want to include any thoughts you had about the food, such as its taste, texture, or appearance.

Emotions After Eating: Reflect on how you felt after eating. Did your mood change? Were you satisfied, disappointed, regretful, or neutral, or something else?

Location: Where were you eating? At home (which room), on the go, at work (at your desk or kitchen area)? Were you standing, on the move, or sitting down.

Company: Were you alone, with friends, family, or colleagues?

Distractions: Note if you were watching TV, using your phone, or engaged in another activity while eating.

3. Be Honest and Non-Judgmental:

Be honest with yourself in your diary. Write without self-criticism or judgment. The purpose is self-reflection, not self-condemnation.

4. Reflect on Patterns and Identify Triggers:

At the end of the week, review your entries. Look for patterns and trends. Are there specific times of the day or week when emotional / binge eating is more likely to occur? Look for commonalities in your entries. Identify triggers such as specific emotions (like stress, sadness, or boredom), situations, or people that precede binge episodes. Understanding triggers can help you prepare for or avoid them.

Here are some examples of patterns you might discover:

Emotional Triggers:

  • Sadness or Loneliness: Emotional eating might be more common when you're feeling down or lonely.

  • Boredom: You might find yourself snacking more when you're bored and looking for something to do.

  • Joy: Positive emotions like happiness and celebration might trigger overeating during parties and social gatherings.

Specific Emotions:

  • Stress: You might notice that you tend to overeat or make unhealthy food choices during stressful situations at work or home.

  • Anxiety: Feelings of anxiety might lead to mindless snacking or the consumption of comfort foods.

Time-Based Patterns:

  • Evening Eating: You might notice a pattern of consuming more food in the evening, especially when winding down after a long day.

  • Late-Night Snacking: Some people find they eat excessively late at night, possibly due to feelings of relaxation or boredom.

Social Situations:

  • Eating with Certain People: You might observe that you tend to overeat when you're with specific individuals, perhaps due to social pressure or emotional dynamics.

  • Eating Alone: Being alone might trigger emotional eating episodes, especially if you associate food with comfort or companionship.

Environmental Triggers:

  • TV or Screen Time: You might notice a pattern of overeating when watching TV or using your phone, associating screen time with snacking.

  • Food Availability: The presence of certain foods in your environment could trigger emotional eating, especially if they are easily accessible.

Hormonal Patterns:

  • Menstrual Cycle: Some individuals experience changes in appetite and cravings during different phases of their menstrual cycle.

Mood Swings:

  • Emotional swings might lead to seeking comfort in food.

Meal Skipping:

  • Skipping meals during the day might lead to intense hunger and overeating later in the day.

Mindless Eating:

  • Distracted Eating: Eating while distracted (watching TV, working, etc.) might lead to consuming larger quantities without you being aware of it.

Coping Strategies:

  • Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms: Recognise if you consistently turn to food to cope with emotions instead of addressing the underlying issues directly.

This list is not exhaustive but hopefully gives an indication of things to look for. Once you identify your specific patterns, you can work on finding healthier ways to manage your emotions and break the cycle of emotional eating. Remember, understanding these patterns is the first step toward positive change.

5. Practice Self-Compassion:

Be kind to yourself throughout this process. Emotional / Binge eating is a challenging issue, and setbacks can happen. Be patient with yourself and keep using your Emotional food diary as a tool for self-reflection and self-improvement.

6. Seek Professional Help:

While keeping an emotional food diary can be a valuable self-help tool, for some it can be too challenging. Either way, you may want to consider seeking support from a therapeutic counsellor. They can provide additional guidance and help you work through the underlying issues that contribute to your binge / emotional eating. If you feel you might benefit, please contact me for a chat.

I’d love to hear from you so please feel free to leave your comments below.

First published in Counselling Directory, 30/10/2023.

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