Before you start reading, take a wild guess at how many decisions you think you make about food. Think about the first hour of your day when you wake up- do you think about what to eat? Whether to eat at all? Should you have a coffee or a tea? With milk? Iced or hot? Should you make it at home or stop by the coffee shop along the corner?
According to Adam Brumberg from Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, his lab’s research shows that people make on average about 200 decisions related to food every day, and most of these decisions are made unconsciously (1).
He also says that part of the reason why we make so many decisions in a day is largely due to how our environment influences our eating behaviour (1). For instance, we enter a movie theatre and are welcomed by the buttery smell of fresh popcorn, making people accustomed to eating popcorn with a movie, even while watching at home. Another example is how stress and stressful events tend to trigger the intake of desserts or fried foods.
A lot of these 200 decisions are also particularly related to the initiation and cessation of eating, meaning when we decide to start eating, and when we decide to stop (2).
Other factors include the atmosphere, how accessible the food is, the time of day, the social interactions that happen around you and the distractions (1). Believe it or not, psychological studies even show that package size, plate shape, lighting, and variety can influence your food decisions too (1). No wonder we can’t stop thinking about food!
You can probably thank the food industry for encouraging these environmental factors (surprising, right?). Let’s start with the influences in the grocery store. Doing your groceries is an essential part of life, and we can only imagine how many decisions are made everyday there. All the food packaging, shelving strategies, advertisements, flyers, promotions, and even how the grocery store is laid out encourages decision-making overload (3). At the same time, customers are deciding on spontaneous purchases, what they’ll eat tonight, what their family will eat this week, and the list goes on!
Now, on the other hand, let’s take a walk in the shoes of a chronic dieter or a disordered eater. It’s not surprising that as soon as one starts a diet, they would think about food more.
When there are restrictions on eating habits, there are physiological and psychological reasons why thoughts about food would increase (4). What you resist, persists.
“Should I eat this?
“What if I don’t eat it?” “What if I do?”
“How many calories have I eaten?”
“How much will that cookie put me over my calorie limit?”
“Have I gone over my calorie limit?”
“Ok, I crossed the line. Should I start my diet tomorrow instead?”
These are all the extra decisions that a “normal eater” would not need to think of. It is estimated that disordered eaters can think about food 25-65% of their day (4) – that’s more than 300 food-related decisions!
Nonetheless, it’s important to note that it’s normal to think about food a lot because food decisions are integrated into our lives, but what’s just as important is to understand why we do so.
Decision-making in general can be difficult, and food decisions can take up a lot of your mental capacity. Let’s discover why and explore some ways to lessen the amount of decisions you make around food to tame any food-decision anxiety.
1. Nourish and respect your body by giving it enough food.
Hunger is our body’s natural response and trigger to seek out food (5). Food restriction leads a message to the brain to protect you from starvation (5). Instead of being critical with your food thoughts, thank your brain for trying to save you. By nourishing your body and giving it enough food, restrictions will decrease, and food rules will be eliminated leading to less decision making, naturally.
2. Isolate the underlying emotion that drives you to eat that food.
Are you feeling an uncomfortable emotion? Is it boredom? Are you stressed? Are you at a party and everyone is grabbing at that food? Try to understand this rather than having that inner-dialogue to talk yourself out of following the food script (6).
3. Recognize that it’s a thought and that you can choose to detach from it
If you are truly not physically hungry, practice letting these thoughts pass and simply observe them. Practice recognizing that thought or emotion and understand how they can impact your actions – some that may not necessarily be aligned with what you want. Often, we can’t avoid being exposed to triggering events, but we can learn to remove ourselves from thoughts that are obsessive. Repeating this will help detach from the thought of food.
4. Here comes the hard part. Make a decision and own it.
We don’t want this decision to turn into 20 more decisions. If you decide to eat it, shift your mindset to welcome awareness into your eating experience. Enjoy eating it and after, know that you can stop whenever you want because you will always have that food available to you.
You can see that there are multiple factors to explain why you always think about food. For starters, the average person already makes around 200 decisions a day just about food! You can be influenced by environmental cues, by habits, emotions or physiological needs. Thus, it’s also important to address the underlying reasons why you can’t stop thinking about it.
If you find yourself having disordered eating, perhaps your unstoppable thoughts about food are your body’s way of telling you that you’re not giving it enough food. The less you restrict and the less you try to control your eating, the less you will think about food.
- Dahl, M. (2016). You Will Make 200 Decisions About Food Today. Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.thecut.com/2016/05/you-will-make-200-decisions-about-food-today.html
- Lang, S. (2006). ‘Mindless autopilot’ drives people to dramatically underestimate how many daily food decisions they make, Cornell study finds | Cornell Chronicle. Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2006/12/mindless-autopilot-drives-people-underestimate-food-decisions
- Vermillion, S. (2020). Grocery Store Anxiety. Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/grocery-store-anxiety_l_5e679f3dc5b68d61645b3b02?guccounter=1
- Brooks, S. (2017). I’ve Stopped Depriving Myself and Still Think About Food Constantly. How Long Will This Last?. Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://edrdpro.com/ive-stopped-depriving-myself-and-still-think-about-food-constantly-how-long-will-this-last/
- Gerson, M. (2016). Want to Know Why You Can’t Stop Thinking About Food? The Answer Might Surprise You | Recovery Warriors. Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.recoverywarriors.com/effects-dieting-weight-loss-behavior/
- Burk, J. (2019). How to Let Go of Food Rules — Jenny Eden Berk. Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://www.jennyedenberk.com/blogroll/how-to-let-go-of-food-rules
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