A Busy Mind Makes Poor Choices

A guest blog post written by Peter Dell’Orto of CR Fitness

Did you know that the more things you need to concentrate on, the worse food choices you make?

It seems odd, but true.

I stumbled upon a discussion of a study of choice on the show Radiolab (http://www.radiolab.org/2008/nov/17/).

It’s worth it to take a few minutes to listen to part of the show.

In it they discuss a study that asked people to memorize either 2 or 7 digit numbers, and then tested their ability to make good food choices by offering them either a nice piece of fruit, or a slice of cake.
Start listening at the 4:35 mark to hear the story; you can hear the study itself from 6:05.

The people asked to memorize 2 random numbers who were offered a snack of fruit or cake almost always chose fruit.

The people asked to memorize 7 random numbers who were offered the same choice, overwhelmingly chose cake.

The basic idea is that reasoning power is finite – you only have a limited amount of brainpower or willpower to dedicate to making smart choices. But emotional choices – like that cake – take no brain power. Given a choice between healthy food and unhealthy food, the more you’ve got going on in your life, the more likely you are to choose the unhealthy food. Your emotional side wins and chooses the short-term feel-good snack over your long term health and goals. Your rational mind is too busy holding onto 7 numbers to overcome the emotional desire for cake.

But that makes sense, right? We talk “comfort” food. We have a bad week of eating because we’re stressed and distracted. We forget to eat well or eat a all when we’re overwhelmed by work, school, or family concerns. It happens to all of us at some point.

What can you do about it?
Luckily, the answer to the problem is contained in the study, too.

Plan Ahead!
One strategy you can use is to plan ahead. Make your food decisions when you’ve got a clear head and nothing else is distracting you. Decide what you will eat, and if possible, prepare it ahead of time. Make the decision when your head is clear and you have no time pressure to make the decision or a mind full of other important issues.

There is a strategy called the “Sunday Ritual” – you sit down and plan your meals for the week, shop to get the ingredients you need, and get them ready to eat if possible (chop the veggies, slice up the meat into portions or pre-cook it, etc.) As each meal comes, you eat what you have prepared – no decision necessary.

What if you don’t have the time to plan out for the week? It’s tough, admittedly. But can you plan one meal at a time, per day? Start there. Plan one meal for the day in the morning or the night before. Stick to the plan and serve and eat that meal.

Once you get that one meal down, start working on planning two meals – say, dinner and breakfast. And work up from there. Slowly but surely you take the emotional “I want cake” out of the process of eating.

This is partly why people who plan their menu ahead of time for the day, or even the week, do so well sticking to their eating plan. They don’t need to decide what’s for lunch, they just go and get the pre-planned lunch. My secret to eating a healthy breakfast is that I plan it the night before – I go to bed thinking, yes, I get to wake up and eat this awesome breakfast. No matter how distracted I am in the morning, I still eat that healthy breakfast – because it’s all planned and ready. I can make it on autopilot, even if I’m tempted by other things like dessert or snacks. My rational mind made the decision when it wasn’t cluttered by work and school and family concerns, when the odds were stacked in its favor.

Remember, start small and work up, and remember that stress and distraction work against making good decisions.