The Cycle out of S-T-R-E-S-S eating challenge started May 1, and already, I’ve gotten some interesting emails from participants about their experience of the first week’s activity—one of which touched on the idea of decision fatigue.
The individual’s comment was that for her, emotional eating tends to happen late in the day—and I’m betting most of us can relate to this: it’s easier to make better food and lifestyle choices earlier in the day.
It turns out there’s a word for this phenomenon, and it’s called “decision fatigue.” (There are some good introductory articles on Healthline and Medical News Today and even one about how Covid-19 has exacerbated this tendency.)
The bottom line is that, faced with myriad choices—big and small, simple and complex, important and less so—our brain’s ability to make better choices declines throughout the day unless we take steps to ensure this doesn’t happen.
how many decisions do you make before breakfast?
As a little experiment, I decided to track how many choices I made before breakfast today:
- 4:00am—do I get up or try to get a little more sleep?
- 4:25am (no, I didn’t get any more sleep, but I did relax and do a little breathing/mindfulness practice)—is it warm enough in the house to wear the sleeveless workout shirt? (It wasn’t.)
- 4:30am—do I do the longer or shorter version of my morning routine? (I compromised.)
- 4:50am—which yoga routine do I want to do? (I settled on one called, “But I don’t have time for yoga.”)
- 5:15am—do I want to use the new toothpaste, which I like, or make myself finish the old one, which I don’t like? (I used the old one, hoping to speed it on its way.)
- 5:20am—is it warm enough to wear a t-shirt, or is it still turtleneck weather? (Early May in Michigan? Let’s be real—it’s still turtleneck weather for me.)
- 5:25am—which tea do I want this morning? (Jasmine green)
- 5:30am—is this avocado ready to eat, or should I wait and have hot cereal today? (I ate the avocado on toast. Environmentally costly avocados are one of my “cheat” foods in my mostly SOLE food kitchen, so I’m mindful about eating them and really enjoying them when they’re at the perfect ripeness.)
- 5:35am—do I read for education or for pleasure this morning? (I opted for pleasure—rereading The Mists of Avalon for the who-knows-how-manyeth time.)
- 6:00am—what do I blog about this week?
Laugh at these examples if you like, but that’s 10 decisions of varying size, complexity, and importance, all in the space of two hours and none of them really having an effect anyone else’s life!
Is it any wonder our poor brains are tired by the end of the day? I’m tired of the experiment already, so no, you don’t get to look into the rest of my day—and you can bet that the decisions I make during work and the time I spend on domestic affairs are more involved than these ten.
decision fatigue + food choices
Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, it makes sense that your brain makes better choices when you start your day—whether that’s 4am or 11am—and that by the end of a full workday and dealing with what comes after work, especially if you have family members to take care of, deciding on what to make for dinner and actually making it can feel daunting.
It’s probably why we Americans spend more money on food prepared outside the home than in and look outside ourselves for the decision about what to eat. So much easier to let someone else do the cooking for us or tell us what to make, and yes, please, to those meal kits that not only tell you what to make but provide everything already measured out.
(Don’t get me wrong—while it’s unlikely I would ever use a meal kit, I think they’re a great crutch in the transition between eating out/getting takeout all the time and having a home cooking practice. I’d much rather see a client use a meal kit service than order out seven nights a week.)
If you read the articles I recommended above, you’ll see that one of the main suggestions for relieving decision fatigue is to simplify your choices, so you spend less brain power on each one.
Simplicity of choice: it’s why Steve Jobs and Barack Obama almost always wear the same outfit daily, whether it’s a black turtleneck or a blue suit. And, not being attached to fashion in the least, it’s why I own five identical-style sweaters in five different colors: add jeans and a white shirt, and my clothing choice is done for the day.
When I’m working on food choices with a client, the mantras I suggest are as follows:
- The healthy choice has to be the easy choice: you’re much more likely to eat carrots and hummus instead of potato chips if you have the carrots and hummus handy.
- Set yourself up for success: consider what you have to do to make sure the healthy choice is the easy choice. It probably means washing and peeling and cutting the carrots ahead of time—because even that chore can feel like a lot at the end of the day for some people.
set yourself up for success
As far as making better food choices in the evening, setting yourself up for success looks different for everyone: we’re all on a different part of our food journey.
- You may have time and energy to prepare some foods ahead from scratch, creating your own grab-and-go or reheat choices in the fridge and pantry.
- You may opt for minimally-processed foods that cut down on your prep time: bagged salad mixes, frozen or prewashed and cut up vegetables, etc. (PS Minimally-processed does not include mixes and salad dressings, frozen entrées, etc.)
- You may find someone else to do the cooking from scratch for you.
- You may decide to invest in a meal kit service.
- You may learn how to make better choices at the places you eat out or get takeout from—even if it’s a fast-food drive-thru.
The point is, you make the decision ahead of time—preferably when you’re rested—so you don’t have to make it on the spot.
make the connection
If you find yourself eating emotionally and/or making poor food choices by the end of the day, don’t give up! While the challenge is already underway, I’ll be offering an entire course on escaping the emotional eating cycle in June/July of 2021! You can get the details and link to apply here.