“What is the reason behind my food choices? How come I feel unable to control my food intake? Why do I sometimes seem determined to make healthy choices and at other times, I completely fail to do so? Why can’t I stick to my diet plan and lose this extra weight that has been bothering me that much?”
Studies done to understand the brain and how it works might help us understand our food choices.
The part in the brain that controls conscious awareness can only process a small amount of information at the same time. This part is cognitive and allows you to take careful consideration before you make a decision but is only working about 5% of the time.
Another part of the brain controls unconscious behaviors and is responsible for impulsive and automatic decision making. These decisions happen quickly and don’t require much thinking and deliberation. This part of the brain works the rest ofthe time, which means 95% of your day. It is mainly active when there is a lot of information bombarding your brain, or when you are under stress, tired or really busy.
This means that you can only consciously process a limited amount of information at the same time and when you are overloaded you take quick, automatic and unconscious decisions.
In a study done in 2005 and published in Journal of Consumer Research, participants were asked to choose between a fruit salad and a chocolate cake after memorizing either a two-digit or a seven-digit number. 45% of the participants who memorized the two-digit number and 62% of the ones, who memorized the seven-digit number, chose the chocolate cake. We all know that chocolate cake is more appealing than a fruit salad. Ultimately, what happened is that the group that had to memorize the seven-digit number had less available brainpower to carefully consider the items and just followed their impulses.
As mentioned above, there is a limit to the amount of information you can process consciously at the same time. When you don’t have the mental capacity to take conscious decisions or when your reasoning resources are depleted because of stress or any other reason, you usually choose the default option that requires no thinking. The problem is that when it comes to food choices, unfortunately, the default choice, as you can guess, is the one high in sugar and fat.
Another study done in 1992 and published in Physiology Behavior, revealed that when the number of people sitting at a dining table increases, the number of calories they consume goes up. The reason is not the number of people but the fact that people probably do an effort to focus on attending to their table mates, which reduces the conscious awareness that controls their food choices. The same applies when you eat while watching TV or reading.
To prevent your mind from slipping away while you eat, you should practice mindful eating. This can only take place when you awaken your senses:
– Learn to appreciate the different flavors that compose your plate or sandwich, to enjoy its taste and smell.
– Try also to devoid your eating environment from unwanted stimuli that can shift your attention.
– Take your time deciding what you want to eat today and plan your meals ahead of time. Forget about the work that you have to accomplish before the end of the day.
– Never go the supermarket when you don’t have enough time to shop; You end up buying unhealthy products and storing them in your kitchen, tempting you to eat and making you feel guilty about it.
– Try to understand and identify the situations that push you to make food decisions that you wouldn’t have made under different circumstances.
Practice mindful eating instead of eating on auto-pilot.