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How to Review a Client’s Food Journal

How to Review a Client’s Food Journal | Jessie Newell | Exam Preparation Blog | 2/7/2014


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Food JournalWere you surprised by the title of this blog? Rightfully so! With nutrition being such a gray area for fitness professionals, it can be a challenge to know what is or isn’t within our scope of practice. The purpose of this blog is to shed some light on this topic and give you the tools you need to effectively review a client’s food journal.

Keeping a detailed food journal with a calorie count is a GREAT way to create awareness! As a health professional, reading a food label might be second nature, but keep in mind that the general public may not have your level of expertise. Also, mindless snacking can be a huge contributor to our calorie-consumption, so the “You bite it, you write it” rule (which includes beverages) can be an eye-opener for many people. It’s so important to help your clients keep an accurate food journal.

The next thing to address is the concept of energy balance: calories in vs. calories out. Help a client understand that to promote fat loss, you want to lose a maximum of 2 pounds per week through mild caloric restrictions and increased physical activity. Then, based on her goal (weight loss, maintenance or gain), show the client how this can be achieved by calculating her daily caloric deficit or needs. And, if you REALLY want to impress your client, try calculating her resting metabolic rate (RMR). Finally, this is a great opportunity to educate your client about the USDA Guidelines for various macro- and micronutrients. There are so many misconceptions about dietary needs (protein and vitamins to name a few), and this is your chance to create an educated consumer. These topics will allow your client to take an active role in learning how to monitor her nutrition, and hopefully make it a little more exciting while documenting her diet.

The key here is to use your client’s food journal as a source of insight to what her typical diet might look like, and to look for ways where she can incorporate healthier choices into her diet. I like to think of it as the “who, when, where and why” and NEVER the “what” of meals! We can gather so much information simply by looking at the trends of our client’s eating habits.
For example:


Who was your client with? Was he at home by himself or at a restaurant with friends? This can show us trends, such as if your client is a social eater, which allows you to explore if he was actually hungry when he went to get ice cream with his friends or if it was just a social activity? You can then address this issue and help him think of healthier social activities, such as a kickboxing (or yoga or spin or whatever!) class. Also, if he knows he is going to be going out with friends later and probably splurging with the calories, he can make up for it throughout the day by skipping that chocolate mocha in the morning or cookie at lunch.
Who prepared the food? When you don’t cook it yourself, you never really know what’s going into it, so creating awareness when you’re eating on-the-go can be very important! Luckily, most restaurants now have calories on their menus or have the nutrition information available upon request. If eating is a social activity for your client, perhaps she could cook dinner with her friends so she knows exactly what is going into the food she’s eating.


When is your client consuming his calories? The timing of when someone eats can certainly shape someone for success (or not). Here are some trends to look for: Is he skipping meals (usually breakfast) or not consuming adequate amounts for meals? When someone only has a banana for breakfast and a bag of chips at lunch, overeating at the end of the day is common because by that time he’s STARVING. Snacks are not the enemy! In fact, they can help prevent us from overeating during a meal, BUT it’s the mindless or unhealthy snacks that can add up. Recommending some healthy snacks to keep on hand (dried fruit, granola bars, nuts, etc.) might help prevent your client from overeating at meal times. This is an opportunity to educate your client on nutrient-dense snack options and portion sizes.


Where is the content of your client’s calories come from? This is where the scope of practice can start to blur—the goal here is to focus on how can you make general healthy adjustments to what your client is eating (if necessary). For example, if you notice that she uses a lot of butter you can ask: Have you ever considered using a vegetable or olive oil when you cook instead of butter? Then, you could explain the difference between saturated vs. unsaturated fats. If you see that she has a lot of processed, prepackaged foods you might discuss some healthy, but convenient snack options to try instead. Finally, keep in mind the recommended ranges for the macronutrients: 45 to 65% carbohydrates, 10 to 35% protein and 20 to 35% from fats. Does her diet fall within these ranges?


Why does your client choose the foods that he eats? Is it because of convenience, preference, accessibility, etc.? If you recommend eating a salad to someone who HATES lettuce, that’s probably not going to be very successful. Particularly for clients who have low self-efficacy, this could be a make-or-break moment. The whole “If I can’t do this, I might as well give up on everything” attitude is easily reinforced in this type of scenario. If your client isn’t sure what fruits and veggies he likes, give him “homework.” His job is to find one vegetable that he likes this week and incorporate it into one meal. That said, fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t always an option for everyone, whether due to accessibility or affordability, so try to explore some ways that he can still get those in his diet. For some, frozen or canned fruits and veggies may be a good option.

More than anything else, the MOST IMPORTANT thing to remember when reviewing a food journal is to have empathy and set judgment aside. For some, food can be so much more than a source of fuel and you can’t expect someone to simply cut something a food out of his or her life if it has a high degree of sentimental value. You’re there to help educate your clients and create awareness about their diets—you are not there to make them feel bad about their habits. In fact, many clients truly have no idea what they’re actually putting into their bodies. Finally, if you suspect that your client has an eating disorder, be sure to refer him or her to someone who is more equipped to address these needs.

I hope this blog was helpful in clarifying what a personal trainer can and cannot do when it comes to nutrition. Although we cannot tell them what to eat, there is still SO much we can do to help them improve their diet choices over a lifetime. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this blog please feel free to comment on this blog or contact our Resource Center at or by calling 800-825-3636, Ext. 786, where our Study Coaches are available Monday-Friday, from 7 a.m. – 6 p.m. PST.