Can keeping a food diary help you eat better? Five Telegraph writers get expert advice on their weekly diet

Telegraph writers with
very different lifestyles
share their food diaries
with the experts to
find out what simple
changes they can make 
Telegraph writers with very different lifestyles share their food diaries with the experts to find out what simple changes they can make  Credit: Geoff Pugh

Mindless snacking, ever-larger portions and pints of coffee are just a few of the things that seem like they are conspiring to make us consume more than we realise. If you suspect you could be eating better – and feeling better – a food diary is a good place to start.

Being aware of what you eat, and when, can help you understand the why: are you really hungry? Perhaps you scoffed that entire chocolate-orange stollen because you’re stressed, time-pressed or bored?

Five Telegraph writers (aged between 25 and 56, with very different diet and exercise habits) kept detailed food diaries over a week (edited down to four days here for reasons of space), noting down everything they ate and drank. Perhaps you’ll recognise some of your own foibles – Pret for lunch every day? Gin as a coping mechanism? – in their accounts.

These were given to nutrition experts Dr Rangan Chatterjee (GP, host of the Feel Better, Live More podcast and author of The Stress Solution), and Dr Hazel Wallace (author of The Food Medic: Recipes and Fitness for a Healthier, Happier You), who analysed them carefully and came up with easy diet and lifestyle tweaks for each.

The yo-yo dieter

Lucy Dunn in her kitchen at home in St Albans Credit:  John Lawrence

Lucy Dunn, 50

Although I’m as active as I ever was, I’ve put on half a stone that I want to shift, so I’ve been weighing myself a lot recently.  I have a long-ingrained binge-fast approach to eating – my diet is either really good or really bad, often in the same sitting.  This has been exacerbated by the fact that I moved companies in the summer. Starting a new job is exhausting, and good habits have flown out of the window. I am getting back on track with my running now, but I realise the food bit needs work. I am good at the beginning of the week, but the minute exhaustion sets in, the junk food comes out.  Friday has become a binge-fest of carbs and gin as I try to counteract my tiredness.

Wednesday

  • 9am: Skyr blueberry yogurt
  • 1pm: beetroot and feta wrap
  •  4pm: raspberry jelly, wasabi peas, three biscuits, Diet Coke, crisps
  •  7.30pm: cherry tomatoes and coriander fried in coconut oil with two slices of white bread

Thursday

  • Five-mile run
  • 1pm: Leon meatless meatballs
  • 7.30pm: Pret a Manger tuna baguette
  •  9pm: Kettle chips

Friday

  • Yoga (one hour)
  • 9am: porridge
  •  1pm: Pret mac n cheese
  • 2pm: Kit Kat
  • 7.30pm: small glass red wine, crisps and two large gins
  •  8pm: Waitrose coconut sticky rice stir fry with white crab
  •  10pm: bar of chocolate

Saturday

  • Four-mile run
  • 10am: three Dr Karg crackers with peanut butter
  • 11am: pack of oven-baked crisps
  • 2pm: homemade vegetable soup, Parmesan sprinkles
  •  7pm: large gin and tonic, crisps and a cheese straw
  •  9pm: Kit Kat

Dr Rangan Chatterjee says: 
Lucy weighs herself a lot, which is a red flag. It means she is looking for quick fix rather than thinking about the long game. This fits with Lucy’s yo-yo approach; it’s either really good or really bad.

I think stress is a key driver here. Many people use carbs to relieve stress and that’s clearly happening for her on a Friday and in the evenings.

I see a lot of women who are stressed out and jumping from diet to diet. When you’re chronically stressed, your body thinks it’s under attack and so it will hold on to weight. Health needs a holistic approach. Often, sleep and stress get neglected. Once people address their stress levels – 10 minutes of meditation, an evening bath, switching off tech – they can start making better food choices to start losing weight.

Dr Hazel Wallace says:
 In order to reduce the amount of stress Lucy is under, particularly when it comes to her dietary habits, I’d encourage her to batch-cook lunches and dinners on her days off so she can have nourishing meals throughout the week. One-pot meals such as veggie chillis, dahls, curries, and soups are great options to cook in bulk and portion out throughout the week. To keep things interesting, she could serve them with different grains or starches each day (brown rice and sweet potato, and a portion of leafy greens).

I’m concerned that she’s not getting enough calories or nutrients to support her activity and overall health. Women in their 50s have lower oestrogen levels, so weight-bearing exercise and a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D is really important to help support bone health and prevent osteoporosis.

She regularly eats Skyr yogurt and cheese, which is a good source of calcium, but she should consider a vitamin D supplement during the winter and spring seasons.

The intermittent faster

Andrew Baker pictured at work with his Pret a Manger lunch  Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

Andrew Baker, 56

I’m in pretty good health, and while I’m no sort of athlete I’m not overweight. But I find that my weight creeps up inexorably unless I pay attention to my diet.

Currently I stick to what I think is officially termed “intermittent fasting” but in my case basically means skipping supper. The idea is to restrict my food intake to eight hours out of every 24. Not hard during the week, when I snack all day at my desk and we rarely eat out in the evenings. At weekends I skip breakfast and enjoy family lunches and dinners. I have lost about 3kg which seems not to be reappearing.

I tend to avoid bread, which makes me sleepy; and I’ve been contentedly teetotal for many years, which cuts out a lot of “empty” calories. My treat is good, dark chocolate.

Thursday

  •  10am: small bowl comprising banana, mango, non-dairy coconut “yogurt”, granola Fresh fruit: mango, pineapple, melon, apple, blueberries 1 can Diet Coke
  •  11am: 2 squares dark chocolate
  • Lunch: Pret macaroni cheese; Pret cereal bar; 1 packet Pret cheese crisps; Pret ginger beer
  • 3pm: 1 portion mango with lime juice
  • 5.30pm: 2 squares 85 per cent chocolate with blueberry and quinoa Evening: 1 can Diet Coke; 1 cup valerian tea

Friday

  • 10am: same breakfast 1 can Diet Coke
  • 11.30am: 4 squares 70 per cent chocolate with black cherry.
  • 1.30pm: skinless chicken and brown rice from Leon with shredded raw cabbage and peas. 1 packet crisps. 1 portion mango with lime juice.
  •  5.30pm: 2 squares 70 per cent chocolate with black cherry
  • Evening: Roast chicken, new potatoes, broccoli and sweet corn; strawberries and raspberries with creme fraiche. 1 Diet Coke; 1 cup valerian tea.

Saturday

  • No breakfast
  •  1pm: sausage roll, grilled broccoli with chili and garlic; chocolate sorbet.
  •  1 can Diet Coke
  • 9pm: Pizza Express cheese, tomato and pepperoni pizza. 1 scoop vanilla ice cream.
  •  1 can Diet Coke, 1 cup valerian tea.

Sunday

  • 10am: mango, pineapple and melon; honey and ginger yogurt
  •  1pm: quiche Lorraine, pork pie, tomato salad, potato salad. Strawberries with one scoop ice cream; 1 can Diet Coke
  •  5pm: small packet roasted cashews; 1 Snickers bar, toffee and peanut bar
  • Evening: 1 can Diet Coke, 1 cup valerian tea

Dr Rangan Chatterjee says: Andrew has some good habits: he walks every evening and intermittent fasting has lots of great science behind it. But one thing that does strike me is he has a lot of Diet Coke. There is worrying research about the detrimental effect artificial sweeteners might be having on our gut microbiome. Most types of Diet Coke contain caffeine too, so if you have a can before bed you won’t access the deep levels of sleep that you need.

Dark chocolate also contains caffeine, but it is also rich in polyphenols; a compound found in plant foods and is incredible for gut health.

That Andrew feels really sleepy quickly after having a high-carb food like bread makes me wonder what his blood sugar is like. He might have a level of insulin resistance, which is what’s going on in the body in people who ultimately develop Type 2 diabetes. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to go for an NHS health check.

A lot of his lunches are from places like Pret and Leon. While I’d love people to have home cooked meals three times a day, it’s just not practical. Leon is doing a fantastic job of providing healthy food for people on the go. However, he’s also having a packet of crisps most days. They should be an occasional treat.

Dr Hazel Wallace says: 
Andrew goes for a 45-minute walk every evening with his dog which is really great to see – he should consider fitting in some muscle strengthening exercises on two days of the week. This type of activity further supports health, in particular bone health and regulation of blood-sugar levels.

I would recommend swapping some snacks for one larger meal to ensure he’s getting in enough nutrients. His diet is also quite low in healthy fats that are important for heart health. One way of boosting his intake would be having one portion of oily fish per week, or snacking on nuts and seeds.

The stressed mother of three

Lucy Denyer surrounded by some of her weekly food shop Credit: Geoff Pugh

Lucy Denyer, 37

I like to think of myself as being fairly educated about food and nutrition, and that I have a pretty healthy diet. But with three small children, a busy job and a multitude of extra-curricular activities, sometimes the healthy choice goes out of the window in favour of a quick chocolate fix for energy, or a plate of cheese and biscuits in lieu of dinner because I can’t be bothered to cook.

I’d love to find out how to make small easy tweaks to boost my energy levels and keep my occasional IBS – usually linked to stress or tiredness – from flaring up so regularly. I am getting back on track with running, but the food bit needs work.

I am good at the beginning of the week, but the minute exhaustion sets in, the junk food comes out.

Thursday

  •  8am: hot water with cider vinegar; muesli with oat milk
  • Mid morning: oatcakes and a flat white
  • 2-3pm: ashtanga yoga
  •  3.30pm: 2 roast chicken thighs with hummus, parsley salad and avocado and lettuce salad
  • 5pm: 2 cups tea with semi-skimmed milk; 1 square dark chocolate with nuts
  •  7pm: small glass of prosecco and handful of ready salted crisps
  • 8pm: toasted cinnamon and raisin bagel with butter

Friday

  • 8am: hot water with cider vinegar
  • 9.30am: full-fat latte and a banana
  • 12.45: roasted squash, lentil, ricotta and mushroom salad with basil oil dressing
  •  3pm: tea with skimmed milk and 3 squares dark chocolate with pistachio nuts. 2 pretzels.
  • 5pm: 4 squares dark chocolate with nuts
  • 8.30pm: curry out with friends (small portions of roti, rice, okra fries, chicken curry, saag paneer); 1 650ml Kingfisher beer and 1 tequila cocktail 1 cup herbal tea before bed
  • Cycled to and from work (c. 5 miles each way)

Saturday

  • 8am: hot water with cider vinegar; Greek yoghurt with handful of muesli and a handful of blueberries
  •  11.30am: almond latte; peanut butter sandwich on sourdough bread
  • 2pm: 1 chicken fajita with sour cream, guacamole, salsa, cheese and lettuce, plus a handful tortilla chips. 1 toffee fudge yoghurt and
  •  1 square milk chocolate
  • 6pm: tea with semi-skimmed milk; apple
  • 8pm: 1 panfried salmon fillet with brown rice, avocado, sour cream, tahini sauce, radiccio
  • 1 glass red wine and 3 Ferrero Rocher chocolates
  • 10pm: 1 cup herbal tea
  • Bike ride with the kids, around six miles.

Sunday

  • 8am: hot water with cider vinegar; porridge with oat milk, handful of bleuberries, tsp coconut and almond butter, mixed seeds
  •  11am: latte
  • 1pm: roast chicken thigh with handful of roast potatoes, roast carrots and roast onion, and small portion of steamed green beans and peas. Home-made rice pudding. 1 Ferrero Rocher chocolate; 1 glass red wine
  • 3pm: tea with semi-skimmed milk; 2 squares of dark chocolate with nuts
  • 8pm: bowl of vegetable soup; ½ a chicken sandwich ½ a cheese sandwich on wholegrain bread. Small glass red wine. Small bowl leftover rice pudding, 2 Ferrero Rocher chocolates.
  • 10pm: cup of herbal tea

Dr Rangan Chatterjee says: I’m impressed by Lucy’s diary: she is pretty proactive about her health. Lucy is a classic case for me of when the diet is good enough: focusing on five or 10 percent improvement with her diet is unlikely to yield a 5 or 10 percent improvement in her health. Instead she needs to focus elsewhere.

IBS is a disorder of the gut-brain access, which means stress is a major part of it. When you’re tired or run down it flares up; that in itself can be draining. My tip is to recognise she’s got three young kids and works long hours and be kind to herself. Look to lock in moments of calm through the day; ten minutes at lunchtime when she goes for a walk.

Focusing on one of the other pillars of good health, which for her I would suggest is stress, would give her rewards more quickly. She’ll sleep better, have more energy and feel calmer.

Dr Hazel Wallace says: 
Lucy has a really balanced diet rich in healthy fats, protein, and carbohydrates. To further support her gut bacteria she could try including some fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi or kefir.

Lucy also has Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which she said is triggered during times of stress. Although food does not cause IBS, it can trigger symptoms of IBS. Dietary triggers vary from person to person, so a food diary can be helpful to see if symptoms coincide with eating any foods in particular. The main culprits tend to be alcohol, fizzy drinks, caffeine, spicy or fried food, and in a small amount of cases, dairy. She may want to consider reducing her caffeine intake to see if it improves her gut symptoms. As stress is a trigger, it’s great that she practices yoga to combat this.

The vegetarian millennial

Tom Ough pictured at the gym Credit: Andrew Crowley

Tom Ough, 25

Rumours that my diet is “weird” are completely false.

Here’s my rationale: I liked eating meat, but was horrified to learn about the cruelty and environmental damage of the meat trade, so vegan meat substitutes, which are so good today as to often be indistinguishable from the real thing, make complete sense to me.

Sometimes I may be hungry, in a rush, low on cash, etc, and in any of those cases a nutritionally complete meal-replacement smoothie fits the situation.

Anyway, you’re all gonna be eating this stuff in 20 years, and you’re going to love it.

Saturday

  •  11am: bag of crisps, leftover laab (spiced veggie pork with veg served in lettuce)
  •  3pm: box of vegetable curry from street food stall
  • 5pm-1am (party): three bottles of IPA; one pint of beer; two strong G&Ts; three flutes champagne; five slices of pizza; canapés by the fistful, including crisps and Quorn cocktail sausages; slice of birthday cake
  •  2am: three quarters of a pack of smoked cheese

Sunday

  • 9am: quarter of a pack of smoked cheese
  • 3pm: vegan chicken strips with HP sauce
  •  4pm: football match (cycled there)
  • 5pm: pint of orange juice at the pub (then cycled home)
  •  6pm: two spoonfuls of peanut butter
  • 8pm: courgetti with tomato sauce, including mushrooms, olives and Linda McCartney meatballs. Some brownie and chocolate. A fruit tea.

Monday

  • 8am: tea with gold-top milk, coffee
  •  Cycle to work: 25 minutes
  •  30 mins weightlifting
  • 10.50am: coffee with soy milk
  • 12.23: smoothie including one scoop of Huel (a nutritionally complete meal replacement whose main ingredients are pea and rice protein, oats, flaxseed, sunflower seeds, and coconut) with 30g desiccated coconut and a scoop of protein powder.
  • 14.30: banana blossom fish and chips.
  • Plenty of water throughout day
  • 17.20: tea with soy milk
  •  19.30: stir fry, lots of veg, vegan steak

Tuesday

  • 40 mins weightlifting
  • 10am: coffee
  • 1pm: two cans of Fanta Zero
  •  4pm: tea
  • 19.30 pizza with fake meat on it. A protein shake with Huel and powdered peanut butter

Dr Rangan Chatterjee says: There’s a lot of room to improve here. For a vegetarian, Tom’s diet seems to be lacking in vegetables. It’s typical of the issues that I see these days: lots of people are going veggie or vegan, but they go unhealthy veggie or vegan, and eat a lot of highly processed food. I encourage people to eat a rainbow; different coloured vegetables have different health properties.

The party on Saturday seems to have thrown a few things off course. I get that he’s in his 20s, but I wonder if he could drink slightly less. Drinking regularly means his sleep quality won’t be good, which changes the hormones in his body. I think he is getting away with it right now because he is so active and young. But in five years or so he’ll find that he just can’t.

Dr Hazel Wallace says: 
It’s really important that Tom gets enough calories and nutrients during the day to fuel his training and recovery.

I would recommend increasing the amount of carbohydrates in his diet, particularly around his workouts. On the days where he is on the go and does not have time for a full meal, he could add a banana and some peanut butter to his protein shake.

His diet is quite heavy in meat alternatives and processed foods – he could swap some of the meat substitutes in favour of protein from pulses, legumes, and grains.

Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets can be incredibly nutritious and healthy because they tend to be lower in saturated fat, higher in fibre, and contain greater amounts of fruit and vegetables.

I’d suggest Tom take a vitamin B12 supplement to prevent deficiency and incorporate some plant sources of omega 3, such as flaxseeds, chia seeds or walnuts.

The frazzled dad

Jonny Cooper with his falafel wrap, bought from a stall in Pimlico Credit: Christopher Pledger

Jonny Cooper, 33

Mornings are a melee in my household. There are nappies to be changed, showers to be had, fights over CBeebies to be aired (“Pleeeease let me watch one more Postman Pat,” I whine, as my other half tells me it’s time to go to work).

I find it easiest to either skip breakfast or inhale whatever happens to be in the bread bin. And really, that sums up my approach to food at the moment.

My partner and I are mired in the trench warfare of early childcare: every time we think it’s safe to pop our heads over the parapet and enjoy a well-constructed meal, a volley of baby vomit or a grenade in the form of a toddler tantrum lands.

I look forward to my lunch at work as the one meal of the day that isn’t interrupted by enemy fire. I probably drink a bit too much, too. But then, show me a parent who doesn’t.

Thursday

  •  7am: Slice of brown toast, butter and Marmite, black coffee
  •  1pm: bowl of vegetarian chilli from tortilla: rice, beans, peppers, salsa, guacamole, cheese, sour cream
  • 4pm: flat white
  • 7pm: bowl of homemade vegetable dal, two slices of bread and butter

Friday

  • 7am: black coffee, hot cross bun
  •  1.30pm: falafel wrap with salad
  •  3pm: flat white
  • 7pm: two fish fingers, chips, peas
  •  8-10pm: four squares of Galaxy Caramel, three gin and tonics (at least doubles; home measures)

Saturday

  •  8am: two scrambled eggs and one slice of brown toast, black coffee
  •  1pm: beans on toast with grated cheese and two slices of brown toast
  •  3pm: Two handfuls of grapes and a banana
  •  5pm: four Maryland biscuits, black coffee
  • 7pm: pasta with bacon, peas, mint and crème fraîche
  • 8-10pm: one handful of Maltesers, half a bottle of red wine

Sunday

  • 8am: black coffee; three pancakes with lemon and sugar
  • 9am: half tin of beans, two slices of brown toast, bowl of Greek yogurt (three tablespoons) with honey (one teaspoon)
  • 11am: Salt and Shake crisps, handful of Maltesers
  •  1pm: chicken pesto pasta, slice of white bread and hummous
  •  7pm: homemade chicken curry and vegetable dal, rice, chapati, half a bottle of red wine

Dr Rangan Chatterjee says: Jonny’s mornings are crazy: stress really impacts our food choices and in that chaos it’s hard for him to make good choices. Maybe if he could do a ten-minute morning routine, where he sat in silence with his coffee, or plugged in a meditation app and grounded himself, it would be a great way of getting his body and mind in a good place for the rest of the day.

It’s clear that he’s using caffeine to keep himself going. The half-life of coffee is about six hours, so if you have one at lunchtime a quarter of that will still be in your blood at midnight. It will almost certainly be affecting his sleep and he’s going to be waking up tired and more prone to stress.

It’s the same with alcohol. By Friday night, Jonny is free-pouring G&Ts. There’s no way he’s going to sleep well. I don’t want to be a killjoy, but I think he is trying to soothe the stress in his life with alcohol and coffee. A midweek yoga class either on his way home or online after the kids are in bed would break that stress cycle that sends him hurtling towards the weekend.

Dr Hazel Wallace says: 
Overall, Jonny has a pretty balanced diet: it’s great to see he has a good home-cooked dinner every night, which is often a vegetable dal or pasta dish. He could consider making twice as much for dinner and bringing some for lunch the next day. To get some additional vegetables into his diet, he could add a portion of cooked greens or salad, and chop up some vegetables to have with hummus as a mid-afternoon snack.

Breakfast seems to be a grab-and-go situation – to combat this, he could prepare his breakfast the night before. This might be overnight oats, or Greek yogurt with fruit and granola, or a protein shake with a banana.

Have you ever kept a food diary? Did you change your eating habits as a result? We want to hear from you in the comments section below. 

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For more tips and tricks on how to lead a healthier lifestyle, visit the Instagram and Twitter accounts of Dr Randan (@drchatterjee; @drchatterjeeuk)  and Dr Hazel (@thefoodmedic@thefoodmedic)

BOOK CREDIT

The Food Medic For Life by Dr Hazel Wallace is available now from Boots (Yellow Kite, £20)