Why do we make food choices that don’t align with our own goals? There are as many reasons as there are people who struggle to stick with their diets, but here’s a look at four very common problems that can undermine the best of intentions, and how you can stop them from sabotaging you.
You probably already know some of these, or at least that you could have guessed. But there’s a difference between knowing something in a kind of subconscious way and really internalizing it to the point where you actually act on that knowledge. Plenty of people “know” that shopping hungry is a bad idea, but keep doing it (and then regretting it) anyway. The real problem is how to “know” something in a way that actually motivates behavior change.
Sometimes, all it takes to get from “knowing” to really knowing is hearing something more than once. So even if some of these seem obvious, seeing them just one more time might still be helpful when it comes to making changes in the real world. So here are four things that can affect your ability to make healthy food decisions, and how to manage them so they don't throw you off track.
When you’re hungry, your brain is actually more responsive to pictures of food, especially high-calorie food. Hungry people buy more calories when they go grocery shopping. You’re more sensitive to sweet and salty tastes when you’re hungry (translation: junk food tastes better).
It’s not that people can’t choose to eat broccoli or avoid the cheesecake when they’re hungry. Some people can do that, at least some of the time. But when you’re hungry, you have to fight your own brain and appetite regulation systems to make it happen. It’s harder. You’re more likely to lose that particular battle.
The solution: don’t shop hungry. If you’re going somewhere like a bar or a party where you know there will be junk food, don’t go there hungry, either. Eat a snack first, or at least bring one with you.
And that snack had better have some protein in it, because another huge factor in food decisions is…
2. Protein Status
In this study, women on a low-protein diet had a stronger brain response to food cues about savory foods (think hamburgers, pizza, mac
and cheese…). This study found the same response in a group of men and women. This study found that those brain responses translated into eating more food – specifically, 12% more calories, mostly from savory snacks. And this one goes over all the ways that protein status can affect hunger and cravings.
This is especially relevant if you keep getting drawn to savory junk food like pizza, and not so much to the super-sweet stuff like candy. It could also be one reason why so many people have trouble stopping when they snack on savory roasted nut mixes: maybe they really just need more protein.
The solution: eat at least one palm-sized amount of animal protein at every meal. Unless you’re totally sedentary or have enormous hands relative to your body size, more is probably preferable. When you snack before heading off to the grocery store, have a snack with some protein in it.
3. Fatigue and Decision Fatigue
Just like hunger, sleep deprivation makes your brain more sensitive to pictures of high-calorie foods, and reduces brain activity in areas responsible for deliberate cognitive control of food intake. Sleep deprivation reduces impulse control, and teenagers under experimental conditions of sleep deprivation eat more refined carbs, especially desserts and sweets.
Then there’s decision fatigue: most people can only make so many choices before they start making bad ones. The human brain gets tired after a long day of making choices, and tends to start leaning towards whichever option feels easiest (“Just eat the cake so you don’t have to have a confrontation with Grandma again about why she made it just for you and why won’t you eat it and don’t you love her enough?”).
Again, some people do make healthy food decisions when they’re tired, especially if they’re in the habit of choosing healthy food and the choice is almost automatic. But it’s harder to do.
The solution: sleep enough, or at least take a nap before making important food decisions or going shopping. And if you’re feeling really wrung-out and exhausted, take some time to unwind and relax before hitting the grocery store. Don’t shop while you’re stressed out over another decision. If eating well is important to you, conserve enough decision-making power to make food choices consistent with your goals.
4. Feeling Fat
One of the big names in the psychology of self-control, Roy Baumeister, published a paper exploring the relationship between a highly critical self-image and binge eating. In a nutshell, people with a strong tendency to criticize themselves for being ugly/fat are motivated to avoid thinking about themselves in the abstract, because it’s so unpleasant to be constantly thinking about how fat and gross they feel all the time. So they focus more on the immediate moment and less on themselves. But this has an unintentional side effect: it turns off the cognitive processes they need to resist tempting foods, and makes the dieters more susceptible to losing control.
Studies on chocolate have shown that feelings of guilt over eating the chocolate are associated with higher levels of craving. This might be more familiar as the “I’m already fat and a failure so I might as well at least eat this chocolate to make myself feel better” response.
The solution: there’s no one easy solution to this, because feelings don't come and go on command (don't we all wish!). This study found that improving self-image helped women regulate their eating behavior more effectively, but that’s a long process.
What you can do is not make food choices when you’re feeling particularly bad about yourself. Alternately, make a personal rule now that that if your feelings about your own body are making you want to dive straight into the Nutella, you’ll just eat Paleo for the rest of the day and then tomorrow you can comfort-eat whatever you want. Chances are good that tomorrow, the Nutella won't look nearly as compelling.
…And Yes, there are More
Of course, there are other reasons why people make food decisions they regret. For example, drinking is a great way to remove all kinds of inhibitions, including inhibitions about food. Negative emotional states in general increase cravings as a coping mechanism: your brain wants to feel better and sugar does actually provide that, at least in the short term. “Feeling fat” is in the list above, but all kinds of negative emotions will do the trick. (If you want to read more about this, try here).
But above are four very common ones to start off with - just addressing those can be a big help in avoiding food decisions that you regret later.