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I read a blog some time ago titled Are You Suffering From Decision Fatigue, by Todd who writes for a budgeting software company. He introduces the blog with a conundrum he and his wife had about what to make for dinner. They didn’t have the ingredients for the meal they wanted, so they decided to eat out with their kids. He then puts an asterisk next to each decision that had to be made from the time they decided to go out to dinner, to the time the waiter asked him what kind of dressing he wanted on his salad. I counted 12. He says that by this point, he was exhausted, and didn’t care which dressing he had, even though some of them probably contained ingredients he preferred to avoid.

Sound familiar?

Decision Fatigue – it’s a phenomenon!

Our modern culture is full of choices. The other night we decided to watch something as a family on TV – and it took us about half an hour to decide what to watch. We almost ran out of enthusiasm before we’d even started.

Grocery stores carry thousands of products. There are dozens of cereals to choose from. Even buying something as simple as butter can make you dizzy. My supermarket has about 15 choices when it comes to apples 😩.

If it matters to you whether the food is organic or not; how many food miles it carries; the cost; any possible allergens etc. this adds to the number of thoughts and decisions that need to go into your shopping basket.

In some ways, this is what is attractive about going on a diet or sticking to a food plan. All the decision making is already done for you. You just need to follow the plan. It takes away the thinking.

Research has shown that self-control and decision making draw on the same psychological resource – and it’s likely that one affects the other. When you’ve had to make many decisions it can leave you feeling depleted with no reserves left for self-control – hence Todd’s exasperation when it came to choosing a salad dressing.

When I’m working with people to help them heal their relationship with food, eating and their bodies, I don’t like to use the word self-control. It sounds like it requires an internal struggle and deprivation (both of which are counterproductive to making peace with food). Instead, I prefer to use ‘being in charge’ – or ‘making empowered choices’ as cringey and clichéd as that may sound 😉.

Decisions you need to make for peaceful eating

However, I do get the point of the research. Making many many decisions a day can deplete that executive function that enables more empowered choices.

When you’re learning to eat intuitively and mindfully, you do need to check in with yourself and decide:

  • if you’re hungry
  • how hungry you are
  • what you are hungry for
  • if that food is not available, what other food may satisfy
  • when to stop eating
  • if you’re not hungry, then what other need may be at play
  • and how to meet that need instead of eating (eating is always an option)

If making peace with food is important to you, you really do need to have enough decision-making resource available for making decisions. This won’t be forever, because it does become more natural with practice – but you need enough practice for this to happen!

How to make it easier: simplify

There are a few things you can do to free up your executive function so you can make more empowered choices around your eating.

Become selective about the decisions you make – in general

Since you have a limited capacity for decision making, practice only making decisions that really matter to you.

Just because there are a gazillion choices of cornflakes, doesn’t mean you need to spend 10+ minutes deciding on which one to buy. Just because you can choose from 300 channels does not mean you need to surf through them all to make a decision.

Think about this in terms of decisions in all areas of your life, not just around food.

Plan for food decisions

Of course, the general idea is to tune in to yourself at the time you want to eat, to tune in to what it is you’d like and how much – and then when to stop, but you can do some work in advance to make it easier and less daunting.

These things will sound obvious – and, they do really help!

  • make a list of all the foods you currently enjoy (not just foods with a higher nutrient or fibre content, include ALL foods you enjoy)
  • have as many of them available to you as possible
  • when you go grocery shopping prepare a list in advance – it’ll be easier not to be daunted by all the choices.

These suggestions aren’t to prevent you from buying food on a whim. If something catches your fancy that’s great.  It’s wonderful to experiment and try out new flavours and textures of foods! The idea here is to have as much of your limited capacity for empowered decision making available as possible for the things that matter most to you.