Written by Dr. Poorvi Bhat
Think of this scenario: You had a long day at work and you are craving a midnight snack, you open your fridge and see an apple and a cupcake, what are you likely to pick up? I would guess the cupcake. Though the healthier choice would obviously be the apple, few would make that choice. This is because we rarely decide what to eat purely based on what is nutritious.
For the most part, we understand what is healthy – whole foods, lots of fruit and vegetables, lean proteins, so on – but why does this not translate to eating healthier? That is because food is far more complex than merely calories, vitamins or antioxidants, and what we eat is determined by social, psychological and cultural cues as well (1).
What we eat is a product of our surroundings, values and mood as much as it is about what is healthy. The setting in which we eat is called our food environment, and this is an important influencer of our choices. Factors that influence our food environment include proximity to food, access to an appropriate setting to eat, labelling, placement of food in supermarkets, and so much more (2).
Our food environment is a busy and overwhelming one
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by choices, frozen and unable to figure out what to eat? You are not the only one. Research indicates that increased choice leads to decision fatigue while shopping for food and ultimately decreased satisfaction with the food itself (3).
Our current food environment is a complex one, with an abundance of information and choices to navigate. To add to this, we are constantly bombarded with visual stimuli of food, with hundreds of food adverts daily. We eat not only with our mouths, but with our eyes too and this visual information overload increases the likelihood of making poor food choices. A meta-analysis published in Obesity Reviews found that exposure to pictures and videos of food results in increased eating behaviour and was associated with a higher risk of weight gain (4).
Excess multitasking is associated with increased stress and poor food choices
Another factor in our current lifestyle that impacts our food choices more than we realise is multitasking. There is rarely a moment when we are only doing one thing, with the pace of our lives, multi-tasking seems to be a necessity. But excessive multitasking is known to have detrimental effects on health over time. When we are processing too much information at once, it leads to a cognitive overload and is associated with feelings of increased stress and poorer health (5). Our environment is also filled with information, furthering our need to multitask, and this affects our food choices as well. When we are doing too much while choosing what and how much to eat, we experience a brain-freeze moment, which impacts our decision making when it comes to food.
An experiment done in the University of Surrey showed some interesting results pertaining to food choice while multitasking (6). 81 women were asked to take a taste test while performing tasks which distract from eating. The tasks included – driving, watching TV, interacting socially or being alone. Their hunger, fullness and motivation to eat was measured before and after these tasks. It was found that those who were eating alone felt full faster compared to those driving, or watching TV. Certain tasks induced more eating behaviour than others, and TV watching was associated with the and the latter was associated with the most hunger. Eating alone resulted in feeling full faster, and thus eating less. Distraction leads to poor food choices as it inhibits our conscious decision making, we are overloaded with sensory information, and continue to eat “mindlessly” long after we are full.
What can we do to improve our food environment and choices?
Improving our food environment, and decluttering our minds while eating can help with making better food choices. Though our surroundings are often out of our control, there are many small things we can do to better our food environments:
- Reducing media use during eating and buying food: Limiting the use of screens, and eating in silence increases mindfulness towards the food (8).
- Planning our shopping beforehand: Going with a fixed list, and adhering to it helps reduce the likelihood of cognitive overload and poor food choices.
- A moment of silence before eating: A few seconds of silence, and a deep breath before the meal helps us to reconnect and anchor the mind to the current moment. This ensures we observe the food, and determine how much we really need to eat. Eating slowly and mindfully helps with satiety cues (9).
- Shopping at smaller stores and at off-hours: Shopping in a smaller setting can help reduce the sensory overload.
- Tonic herbs like Gotu kola can increase the concentration, memory power and ability of the brain to handle multiple tasks at once (10). Adaptogenic herbs like Ashwagandha can help with stress management, and improves cognition (11).
Our food environment, much like the rest of our lives, is a multitasking one. This is in turn affecting our food choices adversely, with too much choice and sensory overload, there is a higher chance of reaching towards something unhealthy. Though we cannot directly change our food environment, we can deal with it more effectively by inculcating mindfulness, stress management into our eating.
- Caswell JA, Yaktine AL, Allotments C on E of the A of FR and S, et al. Individual, Household, and Environmental Factors Affecting Food Choices and Access. National Academies Press (US); 2013. Accessed November 1, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK206912/
- Fuentes Pacheco A, Carrillo Balam G, Archibald D, Grant E, Skafida V. Exploring the relationship between local food environments and obesity in UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand: a systematic review protocol. BMJ Open. 2018;8(2):e018701. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-018701
- Reutskaja E, Lindner A, Nagel R, Andersen RA, Camerer CF. Choice overload reduces neural signatures of choice set value in dorsal striatum and anterior cingulate cortex. Nat Hum Behav. 2018;2(12):925-935.
- Food cue reactivity and craving predict eating and weight gain: a meta‐analytic review – Boswell – 2016 – Obesity Reviews – Wiley Online Library. Accessed November 1, 2021. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/obr.12354
- Misra S, Stokols D. Psychological and Health Outcomes of Perceived Information Overload. Environ Behav. 2012;44(6):737-759. doi:10.1177/0013916511404408
- Ogden J, Coop N, Cousins C, et al. Distraction, the desire to eat and food intake. Towards an expanded model of mindless eating. Appetite. 2013;62:119-126. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.11.023
- Carroll KA, Samek A, Zepeda L. Food bundling as a health nudge: Investigating consumer fruit and vegetable selection using behavioral economics. Appetite. 2018;121:237-248. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2017.11.082
- Kononova A, McAlister A, Oh HJ. Screen overload: Pleasant multitasking with screen devices leads to the choice of healthful over less healthful snacks when compared with unpleasant multitasking. Comput Hum Behav. 2018;80:1-11. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.10.042
- Meule A, Kübler A. A Pilot Study on the Effects of Slow Paced Breathing on Current Food Craving. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2017;42(1):59-68. doi:10.1007/s10484-017-9351-7
- An Acute, Double‐Blind, Placebo‐Controlled Cross‐over Study of 320 mg and 640 mg Doses of Bacopa monnieri (CDRI 08) on Multitasking Stress Reactivity and Mood – Benson – 2014 – Phytotherapy Research – Wiley Online Library. Accessed November 1, 2021. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ptr.5029?casa_token=MugUmeKNra8AAAAA%3AWZ7gHcdUpJW_at1aAqPkkUyAjDBPSERwFSeCDygDqO1XZps3lyu82FU22vt5p7kHfCoQpAzoH4huEw
- Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012;34(3):255-262. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022