PT on the Net Research

Food Journaling: An Assessment Tool for Every Fitness Professional

Learning objectives:

  1. Learn how your client should journal their food
  2. Learn the value of food journaling
  3. Understand habits and patterns of eating

Imagine taking your car to a mechanic because there is a problem with the engine. You expect the mechanic to perform some diagnostic tests to figure out where the problem is coming from, but the mechanic starts ripping out hoses and taking apart the engine. Sounds insane doesn’t it? 

When it comes to food, many of us in the industry do the same thing to clients. Whatever their goal, recommendations are made by telling them what to eat, what not to eat and when to eat it. Yet there’s no idea of the current nutritional status of the client. Food journaling is a great tool for any fitness professional to use to assess the current nutritional status of any client.  

How to Journal

Have a client write down everything they put in their mouth. They should write down the time they eat, what they eat and roughly the amount of food they eat. Using a scale and measuring food is an accurate method to use but it’s so tedious and impractical that you’ll lose the client by lunchtime!

Simply use these guidelines when measuring food:

The food journal should be kept for a minimum of 7 days. Food habits change from the weekday to the weekend and you will find that many clients have a set schedule of eating during the weekday. However, once the weekend starts everything changes. They may skip breakfast to sleep in or attend parties with junk food and tons of alcohol. 

It’s not rocket science. We are NOT trying to figure out how many calories that a client is eating. The information gained from journaling will help you understand:

The Value in Food Journaling

Journaling is easy. It doesn’t cost anything. The client just needs a pen, paper and time. Journaling is a very powerful tool because it makes them conscious about what they put in their mouth. Fitness professionals tend to be very conscious about exercise and what is eaten, sometimes to a fault. On the other hand, many clients don’t think about food and how it affects them. They eat because they are hungry. As long as they take care of the hunger, they’re satisfied. Other times they eat “just because it’s there”. 

Clients who work in an office setting are bombarded with food! There are candy jars everywhere, fresh baked cookies from a co-worker, and cake from a birthday celebration. A little bit of candy, cookie and cake add up quick!  Many of your clients will come back and say: “ I never realized I ate so much junk when I’m at the office”. Journaling the food makes them conscious of what they are eating.

Gives insight into patterns and habits

As a client begins to write down what they eat, a pattern will emerge.  For instance, a new client is complaining of energy during an exercise session.  They tend to do well in the first half then crash in the second half of the session.  This can be quite frustrating to the client and to you because there is a lack of progress.  Weeks later, the client tells you that they skip lunch because they’re too busy at work. Obviously, skipping lunch is leading to low blood sugar that is affecting their energy during their workout.  Patterns of eating are very important to look at when changing a clients eating.

Every single person is a creature of habit.  It doesn’t stop with food.  Clients have habits that they may not tell you about.  The client doesn’t do this on purpose.  This happens because they’re not conscious of this habit.  For instance, a client hires you because they want to lose weight for the summer.  After 8 weeks on your exercise program, they haven’t lost any weight on your program and may have even gained a few pounds!  Upon further investigation, you inquire about eating habits at night. Low and behold, the client tells you they have a glass of wine with dinner each night and a glass of wine as a nightcap.  That’s a tremendous amount of sugar and alcohol that will make it difficult for any client to lose weight.  Knowing this information before hand would have saved a lot of frustration on both ends.

Provides information that will dictate food recommendations

A food journal is a great tool to gauge what type of recommendation you will make for a client.  A common mistake is to put a client on a restrictive diet.  For instance, many clients are put on the “classic bodybuilder diet”.  It usually looks like this:






This may not seem limited to some of us but what if you’re dealing with a junk food junky?  This diet would be an extreme change! A typical junk food diet may look like this:





There’s no question that the “classic bodybuilder diet” will work with this client.  But why go to this extreme? 

Let’s say a client comes to see you with no experience with exercise. Are you going to take this client through an Olympic lifting complex for 5 rounds then finish them off with kettlebell swings for timed sets? Of course not! You would start them off by introducing basic patterns of movement and slowly increase intensity and volume as the client progresses. 

In the same way, the recommendation for a “junk food” client needs to be slow. There are several problems that can arise with drastic changes. First, the client will be overwhelmed with all the changes. They may follow the plan for a short time but it may be unrealistic for the long term. This may lead to compliance issues then stopping altogether and reverting back to old habits. Secondly, any small change with a “junk food” client will show results. For example, simply having them eat protein for breakfast can increase satiety, metabolism and lean body mass (Paddon-Jones et al 2008). Although it’s only one change, the client will start to see results. The increase in protein will satisfy the client, which may lead to less hunger for lunch and dinner. Since hunger is affected, food choices will also be affected. Most clients choose junk food because they’re famished and need something quick and easy. Just adding that protein at breakfast can make a world of difference with this type of client.

In this day and age in the fitness industry, more and more trainers are assessing their clients with movement pattern, flexibility, strength and power tests. Food journals are another assessment tool. They’re inexpensive and easy to do. The information gathered from a food journal will help you to make recommendations that are realistic and maintainable for a client. Most importantly, the consciousness created by the food journal will enable a client to make the necessary nutritional changes to reach their goal.


Paddon-Jones D., Westman E., Mattes R.D., Wolfe R.R, Astrup A., Westerterp-Plantenga M. (2008). Protein, weight management, and satiety. Am J Clin Nutr; 87(5):1558S-1561S.