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The Brain Buzz of Food Choices

on October 7, 2012

I was really struck with the comment that Mary left in the previous post.  It included an excerpt from the Weight Watchers CEO about a study researchers did about the number of food choices we make each day.  According to the study, each of us makes more than 200 food choices a day.  More than 200 — holy wow!

That’s so many more than deciding what we want to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Is it any wonder that so many people are obese?  If food is on our minds so much, it’s that much easier to succumb to the siren call.  I know there are millions of people for whom this is not an issue.  God love ’em, I wish I was one.  I also know that not everyone who has pounds to lose carries the diagnosis of compulsive overeater or some other food-related disorder.  I wish I was one of them, too.

If wishes were luxury cars, I’d have a Mercedes convertible.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about food choices all day long, philosophically and literally.  There’s something about a Sunday morning that makes me want to eat a different breakfast than I usually do the rest of the week.  In the old pre-wls days, I could fix a large, unhealthy breakfast.  Homebaked scones with a rasher of crisp, thick, bacon.  Blueberry pancakes with a rasher of crisp, thick, bacon.   Ooey, gooey cinnamon buns with a rasher of . . . yes, you get the picture.  Crisp, thick, bacon goes with everything.  It’s also delicious all on its on.

Most mornings these days, I make a protein shake.  It’s a good way to start the day with 28 grams of protein.  I’m satisfied until my mid-morning snack.  On Sundays, I just feel like something different, but I don’t want to go overboard.  I actually can eat like a “normal” person with a single whole grain waffle or one small pancake and a little dribble of syrup plus some berries on the side.   I’ve gone out to eat with friends and been very happy with a single scrambled egg, two pieces of crisp bacon (Come on, you knew that was coming!), and the inside of half a piece of toast.

This morning, I chose a low fat pineapple bran muffin with some peanut butter on the side.   Looking back, I realize that this simple meal involved a half dozen food choices.  1) Do not run out to the store and buy bacon.  2) Eat a muffin.  3) Add some peanut butter.  4) Do not also butter the muffin.  5) Do not gobble down the muffin and peanut butter.  6) Do not take and eat a second muffin.

Throughout the morning I racked up several other choices, mostly to not snack indiscriminantly or grab something else to eat based on compulsion instead of hunger.  That’s a big challenge.  We compulsive overeaters are capable of eating just because we’re in the presence of food.  It doesn’t matter if it’s time for us to eat, if our bodies need fueling.  We don’t even have to mentally crave the food at that moment.  The mere fact that the food exists and we are in its proximity is enough.  I can’t possibly think back to earlier today and tally up the number of times I thought of eating something else but didn’t.  Seriously.  It’s like guys thinking about sex every 10 seconds.    I have many short conversations.  Well, conversations gives them too much credit.  It’s more like rapid fire exchanges.  “Food?”  “No.  Move on.”

I ate breakfast later than usual and then lingered over the newspaper with a mug of hot tea.  I then got on the phone with a good friend for about an hour and a half.  By then, I’d gone past the snack time and was close to lunch, so I ate a little more of an egg salad I mixed up yesterday.  I rejected the three or four ideas I had to supplement that choice and applied myself to schoolwork and another project.

Occupying the mind in other ways is a proven tool to distract myself from thoughts of food.  If I don’t think about it, then possibilities and opportunities to choose to eat do not present themselves.

Around 4 o’clock I finished work and was, legimitately hungry for a snack.  I opted for a healthy yogurt and juice drink and began to plan dinner.  This required my weekly weekend supermarket visit.  I went with a list.  Shopping with a list and sticking to it is a good way armor myself against random, unplanned choices.  I’m very pleased that I can walk past the bakery department these days and not spontaneously grab something on my way to produce.

I needed lunch meat of some sort.  The doctor’s office actually suggests this as easy, small protein.  Not only is it easy to pack a slice or two for lunch, but it helps to have it in the fridge in case I either get home late or have something to do in the evening that makes it difficult for me to cook a meal.  Ready access to protein is important to success.  Today, yummy sliced roast beef won out over hard salami.  (Look, another food choice!)

In the produce section, beautiful artichokes called to me.  Low in fat, calories and carbs, they provide good fiber, folic acid, and a bunch of other stuff that’s good for our bodies.  I usually stuff mine with garlic powder, some grated parm and bread crumbs and then cook them in the pressure cooker.   I figured as long as I didn’t overdo the bread crumbs and pour melted butter over them, having one at dinner this week would be a nice treat.  Good food choice!

I won’t bore you with a list of every choice I made during the shopping trip but here are a few highlights:  Bypassed the chocolate in the candy aisle; picked skim milk over 1%; picked part-skim ricotta cheese over whole milk; did not sample the kettle cooked potato chips;  put back the tomato bisque soup with over 1000 grams of sodium back (Does that count as two choices — first picking it up and then changing my mind?) and picked up the Campbell’s “Natural” soups with less than half that much sodium and a lot fewer calories; did not give into the last ditch urge for the Dove chocolate bar in the checkout line.

Sometimes I wish it could be more like when I decided to quit smoking.  Then it was smoke or don’t smoke.  Nice and clear cut.    Unfortunately, I can’t boil this down to eat or don’t eat when I absolutely need to consume something several times a day in order to survive.  There are so many extra factors of what to eat, what not to eat; when is it time or not; is the desire fueled by hunger or compulsion?

Honestly, all of this thinking about choices — and then rejecting the bad ones — is exhausting.  I can only do it one choice at a time.


This is post #197.  I can hardly believe it!    As we near post 200, are there any topics, questions or considerations you’d like me to write about sometime?   Many of you have been here with me for months, so I thought it would be nice to ask. 🙂

3 responses to “The Brain Buzz of Food Choices

  1. I read somewhere (I can hear my daughter saying in her inimitably sarcastic style, “I read it on the internet so it MUST be true!”) that we have a limited amount of energy for choice making. Never mind, I just remembered it from a book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. And it was based on brain research. But the premise is, that when we are trying to change a behavior, we have to realize the amount of energy we are using to do that change. They used an image of a rider on an elephant. In the case of food, the elephant would be happily moving toward the chocolate cake and the rider would be trying to redirect the elephant over to the kale salad. One of the ways to make it easier to change is to limit the choices. Another way to keep the change going is to recognize how much progress has already been made. You are already doing much of what they recommended which is why you are doing so well with your changed lifestyle.

  2. Mary Stella says:

    Hi, Skye — I use a product made by Solgar with whey protein. It has 20 grams of protein in a serving with 130 calories, 10 grams of carbs and 9 grams of sugar. I like the chocolate, but have to doctor the vanilla with a Splenda and some vanilla or almond extract. The skim milk adds another 8 gs of protein and about 80 calories plus the sugar and carbs that are natural in milk.

    I could mix it with soy milk or almond milk instead, but since this is my opening meal of the day, I don’t sweat the other numbers much. It’s only 210 calories total.

    There are a whole bunch of different protein powders available. I tried several. Some of them were awful to my taste. If you’re protein powder shopping, I recommend looking for single serving packages first so you can experiment before committing to a full, more expensive container.

    When I first started, the doctor wanted me on lower calorie/carb/sugar protein drinks. Some of them were so disgusting that I had difficulty drinking them down. I also keep a supply of Carnation Breakfast Essentials No Sugar Added. They’re the only pre-mixed drinks that I can tolerate without screwing up my face and saying, “Blech. Ick. Yuck.” (Yes, I’m mature.)

    I bought an inexpensive (something like $15) Hamilton Beach smoothie blender. It whips this up nicely but also is powerful enough to do an actual smoothie that I’d make with yogurt, fruit, protein powder and ice.

  3. Skye says:

    I could hardly believe it either when I read that we make that many food choices a day. You made some excellent ones today! I’m still trying to jump past cereal and PB sandwiches to soup and maybe a salad. At least it’s no longer fast food.

    I’m interested in what’s in your protein shake. I’ve thought that something like that might be good for me for breakfast once in awhile. Is it like a smoothie? (Something else I’ve never made.) Do you use a regular blender or one of those bullet drink blender things? I guess that’s my one question set of questions for now. There may be more at a later point.

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