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How to Use A Food Journal

Why keep a food journal? When you participate in any elimination diet, it can be extremely helpful to identify what foods you’re eating, what foods you may be reintroducing into your diet and your corresponding symptoms. For instance, I can tolerate 1-2 cloves of garlic a day and I usually add garlic to flavor my dinners. Yet, the other day I ate a garlic burger that probably contained 9-10 cloves of garlic. The next morning I woke up with swollen, scaly and puffy eyes. Since not all our of symptoms are immediate after we consume certain foods, using a food journal is a great way literally to chart your progress. When you do wake up the next morning or become symptomatic after the fact, it’s helpful to review what you ate that could have caused your body to react.

The longer you avoid foods higher in nickel, the more likely the possibility you can sparingly reintroduce foods higher in nickel. What’s so tricky about a systemic nickel allergy is that everyone is different! Most of us can’t tolerate soy, whole wheat, nuts, seeds, chocolate, but you may be like me and you can eat white flour. I never recommend you do something that adversely affects your health. The more severe your reaction to eating foods higher in nickel, it’s best be in close consultation with your physician.

When I was initially diagnosed, I religiously avoided foods higher in nickel for 2 entire years! It was really hard, but a conscious choice. I loved the benefits of not having to deal with the itchy, scaly, redness of my skin. Now I closely follow the low nickel diet, but I will from time to time (like once or twice a month) I’ll enjoy a steak salad or slice of tiramisu cake. I know that the chocolate is going to cause me a worse reaction than the salad, so often I’ll choose to eat salad over the slice of cake because it’s a healthier choice. When I do indulge, I still experience terrible eczema, but I know it’s coming. I cannot eat foods higher in nickel regularly, or my skin would react all of the time.

Writing since I learned how to read, journaling my thoughts and feelings enables me to work through problems and remember my experiences. My memory is great for certain details and terrible at remembering other ones. Keeping journals related to my travels, my work, my every day, what causes me stress and my food intake empower me to take control and reflect on my journey.

Personally, I’ve always preferred using a paper journal and adding memorabilia in between the pages. When I first started my nickel food allergy journey, I used a small notebook I could put in my purse to keep track of everything I ate all day long. It was simple, small and useful in telling me what foods are higher and lower in nickel. Let’s be honest, there are a LOT of foods higher in nickel and it takes time to remember what all those foods even are! My list of foods with nickel, is the list that I was given by my dermatologist. Everyone of us is different and what’s challenging about this allergy is that environmental allergens, say nickel in our air and water, can trigger our allergy and stress and lack of sleep can aggravate our eczema.

Journaling your food intake doesn’t have to be an arduous or shaming process. Though called the low nickel diet, the use of the word diet isn’t a term to connotate a specific plan of eating to lose weight. The goal of the low nickel diet is  to reduce your exposure to nickel through what you eat in an attempt to heal your skin or other ailments from the inside. Often our doctor may recommend or “prescribed” us to try the low nickel diet for 1-2 months to try as a solution to dealing with our eczema or other symptoms cause by our nickel allergy. No one is counting calories or keeping score of what you eat.

First things first, determine how do you want to keep your food journal. There are multiple products on the market where you can track your food intake using a mobile phone application. Or would you rather create your own customized excel spreadsheet to keep track? Are you like me and you’d rather use a paper journal or take notes in your day planner? Identifying how you are going to keep track of what you eat is essential. You want to be successful and find a solution that will actually work for you that you’ll use. After you have your digital or physical food journal, what should you keep track?

The Date

The specific days are always important when you journal, especially when you have a couple weeks and you want to identify any patterns. Overtime you do notice if you eat differently during the week than on a weekend? Do you give yourself certain days or dates to indulge? Friday nights, holidays or your birthday?

What did you actually eat and drink?

 Many of us have a difficult time recalling what we had for dinner last night let alone last week. Our bodies require a lot calories all day for energy, physically and mentally. You want to track what you actually ate for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and any snacks. Was the food processed? Frozen? Fresh? These details can be important, particularly before you have trusted brands of processed foods you can safely use. Often our favorite brand will suddenly change the ingredients and begin using foods higher in nickel and you might not notice. When you use a food journal and you think you’re doing well, but your body is telling you something still isn’t right, perhaps it’s a good reminder to recheck all the food labels and see if the manufacturer changed something in their ingredients that could now be causing an adverse reaction. Do you take supplements? Did you get enough water or perhaps celebrate with alcohol? Pinpointing what we drink is just as important as knowing what we ate. Alcoholic beverages can contain sulfates, wheat, or nuts and the FDA doesn’t require their ingredients to be labeled.

Where did you eat?

If you’re like me, I eat breakfast at home. I’ve always been a cereal girl. Typically I’ll eat leftovers or a sandwich for lunch away from home. I’ll occasionally go out to lunch with a friend, planning the restaurant prior. I’m pretty good about eating at home when I eat dinner. But there are always those nights when you just aren’t up for cooking, don’t have the right ingredients and just want someone else to conveniently place food in front of you. Where you eat is great to noting how your food was cooked.

How was your food cooked? What utensils or other nickel could you have come in contact with?

We all know that how our food is cooked can be just as important as what we eat. Nickel can be leached into our food, especially when a heat source and/or acidic food is used during the cooking process. Did you cook your food or did you eat out and you’re not sure, but it’s highly likely stainless steel cookware was used? Are you eating food lower in nickel, but you haven’t yet changed our your utensils and they could be a reason your lips won’t improve?

What are your physical symptoms?

Do you get eczema around your neck, eyes and lips like me? What’s the severity of your symptoms. Is it waking you up at night? Is it inflamed and scaly? Record any details you feel could be useful, perhaps the reaction, severity, location, etc. Some of the digital diaries have options for photographs. Lately I’ve been experiencing eczema on the tops of my hands which is really unusual for me. I have no idea why this started happening. My stress level has been elevated lately. You can develop your own scale of 0-5 to simply and quickly identify what your body is telling you about your symptoms.

Who did you eat with?

Who you eat with can be just as important as establishing what you eat and why. You may eat differently alone than with family or friends. This is important for distinguishing patterns. Are there certain people you eat with that are more supportive than others when it comes to sticking to the low nickel diet? My mother-in-law will eat more carbs when she’s with us than when she’s alone. I’m not sure if it’s a healthy or unhealthy indulgence, but she loves eating fries or bread when we spend time together. Eating a restricted diet is hard. Particularly with holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas that are all about gathering with people you love and eating. Are there people in your life where you eat differently with them?

Is there anything else you want to keep track of? Do you like to eat at your kitchen table, at your office desk or in front of the television? Are you mindfully eating or bored? Do you eat differently when your food is hidden in pantry than out on the counter? Are you experimenting with something, like growing your own food/lettuce hydroponically? Do you have a histamine intolerance and have trouble when you eat reheated leftovers? These are all things to consider.

Again, shame or dieting is not the purpose of keeping track of what you eat using a food journal. I hope you’re able to to keep a healthy attitude with food, which is hard as our culture does not encourage such. We’re told certain foods are healthy or unhealthy or will make us unhealthy. Stop. That’s not the purpose of keeping a food journal. You’re welcome to count calories or carbs or whatever will be useful for you. For the longest time I didn’t have a healthy attitude about food. I hated eating, it was such a process and I felt like I couldn’t eat anything. My attitude changed when I focused on what I can eat instead of what I cannot eat. It takes time to adjust to eating the low nickel diet.

Do you already use a food journal? What tips or tricks have you found helpful? Have you noticed the longer you eat a low nickel diet, you’re more able to occasionally reintroduce foods higher in nickel? I’d love to hear about your experiences with a food journal in the comment section below!