How many eating decisions do you make in a day?
If you google this question, there are numerous references to a research paper published by Brian Wansink in 2007 showing that we make in the region of 200 eating-related decisions each day, many of them out of conscious awareness.
We have to take this with a pinch of salt for now, because Professor Wansink is currently under investigation for irregularities in his research methods, and a number of papers published by him have now been retracted by the journals they appeared in.
All the same, I’m confident in saying that whatever the average number might be, it’s at least quite a few. From what to eat for breakfast, to whether to snack mid-morning to knowing when to stop eating each meal, there are multiple times in a day when we choose between alternative actions. When these actions happen day-in, day-out and become habitual, they become part of our relationship with food. They also influence what we weigh.
Decision making isn’t all conscious
I agree with Professor Wansink’s point that many of these eating decisions occur below the level of awareness. The ones that have become automated no longer need much intention or effort.
If you’re in a restaurant reading the daily specials board, you may be fully aware that you’re trying to work out whether to have the fish of the day or the risotto. But what about the decisions which might fly under the radar of awareness, and you’re half way through the cookie before you’re really aware you’re eating it?
It can be helpful to recognise that whilst much of your day may be taken up with things that have little to do with food and eating, there will be points when your mind turns to food.
At those specific points, it may help to have a framework for helping you eat in line with your health and wellbeing goals. It’s all too easy to get to the end of a day and wonder what happened to the good intentions you started it with.
What might be pushing you towards doing the thing you didn’t intend to?
- How busy or preoccupied you are
The greater your mental load from other tasks or issues going on in your life right now, the more likely it is that you’ll make eating decisions based on existing habits. This is because our ‘working memory’ has very limited capacity and if that capacity is allocated to something demanding our attention, actions that are already pretty automated will be dealt with on autopilot.
- How much food is around you
The more foods there are within reach, the more likely it is that an eating decision will be activated. If you’re working at your desk with a vending machine in your line of sight, your brain may start nudging you to buy a snack – an eating decision that might not be triggered if all you can see is stationery and to-do lists around you.
- How much your appetite system drives you to want to eat
We differ in the extent to which our biological appetite system drives us to think about food, and which types of foods we are driven to eat. Your eating decisions are influenced by what is happening in the communication pathways between your brain and gut, which are different from your friends, family and everyone else. Like most things in life, we’re not all on a level playing field when it comes to daily eating decisions.
How do you make those decisions?
Higgs and Spetter* reviewed the cognitive control of eating.
They made the point that each and every eating decision we make every day is the result of sensory, emotional, socio-cultural and contextual information. When you see the cookies and the fruit bowl next to each other, whether you reach for a cookie or an apple depends on how your brain computes all these things.
This means that whichever you do eat, or whether you pass on both is influenced by
- who’s around and whether they’re eating or not
- your internal state (hungry or not; tired or not; emotionally distressed or not; what your appetite system is signalling right now)
- how tempted you are by the food
- time of day and what else is on your mind
And probably many other things.
One way to base your decisions is on Appetite Retraining
There is no single correct basis for making eating decisions. It’s more a question of finding out what works for you.
I want to offer you one approach to making eating decisions that you might find helpful. Particularly because the tools for this approach are a free downloadable scale, the Appetite Pendulum** and tuning in to your body’s hunger or fullness levels. There is no counting of calories or points and no need for a smart watch.
Roll with the ups and downs of the day
The other thing that Appetite Retraining offers is flexibility – we need to be able to respond to whatever the day throws at us. Which means making some eating decisions on the hoof.
What the Appetite Pendulum** provides is a simple way of gauging how hungry or full you are at any point. It’s something you use at times when you think of eating, and whilst you are eating, to help guide when to eat and when to stop.
The rest of the time you are just getting on with your day.
The overall aim with Appetite Retraining is to eat meals with gaps in between, in a way that fits around your lifestyle. There is no right or wrong about how many meals a day you should have, or what time you should be eating. Those things will depend on what suits you. Whatever your chosen eating routine, stopping each meal at the point of being just full will allow you to get definitely hungry by your next meal.
My book, How to Retrain Your Appetite, is a self-help guide to relearning to eat in tune with your body’s hunger and fullness signals. Practical real-world tips for your decision points
This month I thought I would add to my book by posting short videos about specific eating decision points in the day.
I thought June would be as good a month as any to launch into sharing eating decision tips with you, and I’m going to go out of my comfort zone on this one. I’m going to post a short video each day during June showing a practical situation that I find myself in, and talk you through what might help you keep on track with your overall intended eating.
I’m aiming to do this on Instagram and tiktok as those seem to be the natural homes for short-video formats.
Follow me on Instagram @theappetitedoctor
Follow me on tiktok @appetite_doctor
Follow me on twitter @appetite_doctor
Your real-life eating decision moments
Feel free to comment on my videos about your own decision points. I’d love to start a conversation about the decisions we make about when to eat, what to eat and so on, so we can help each other navigate the tricky terrain of daily eating.
*Higgs, S and Spetter, M.S. (2018) Cognitive Control of Eating: the role of memory in appetite and weight gain. Current Obesity Reports 7 : 50-59
** The Appetite Pendulum is a registered trademark of Dr Helen McCarthy
Photo by Getty Images for Unsplash