THE PARADOX OF CHOICE: WHY MORE VARIETY IN NUTRITION MIGHT NOT BE IDEAL

It’s 5:54am at Daniel Inyoua Airport in Honolulu Hawaii.

“Would you like a window or aisle seat she asks me.”

I freeze like a deer in headlights.

If I get the aisle seat I can stretch my legs out into the walk way. I can get up without bothering my seat neighbors to get up too. Or worse, asking them to wake up.

But if I get the window I’ll have access to views and a built in head rest for easy sleeping. Who am I kidding, I can’t fall asleep on planes. But at least I can close my eyes for a bit and no one will have to ask me if it’s cool to get up and use the bathroom.

“I also have a middle seat in the emergency exit.” she asks me.

Why would I want a middle seat?

“You’ll get extra leg room?”

Damn, that sounds nice too.

WE OVERESTIMATE THE IMPORTANCE FOR VARIETY

According to the Journal of consumer research. We actually derive more satisfaction from eating our favorite foods more often than from having a wide variety. The study goes on to show that when having to choose food for others we tend to overestimate their desire for variety as well.

In another study, researchers asked participants to select 5 snacks out of 9 total for a partner to receive. They could select the same 5 or have each selection be different. One of the groups was asked to clarify why they choose each snack and the other group was not.

What the researchers found was that those selecting the snacks for their partners tended to focus only on the consumption of the snack. Ignoring that the person who was receiving the snack may have one of them now, go do something, have one later, go do something else, save one for tomorrow, or not even eat it at all.

Those choosing the snack were expecting the satisfaction of those receiving it to diminish if they had to eat the same thing over and over. When the study was conducted again. Those participating were asked to focus on what the person receiving the snack might be doing over the next 5 days, the variety in choices was reduced.

It seems we may overestimate the need for variety and choices, not only in our lives but the lives of others.

POOR NUTRITIONAL VARIETY

Growing up I bet you were told that a wide variety in the foods you eat is the best way to make sure you’re meeting all of your nutritional needs.

The problem with this is that most of the variety that we get on a daily basis is from poor food choices that are not nutritionally dense. So yes, you’re getting tons of variety but that variety is in the form of processed junk.

The average person today gets the majority of their energy (calories) from 4 things:

  • Corn
  • Soybeans
  • Wheat
  • Rice

All of which are not particularly nutrient dense. If you’re looking for more variety in your diet look to eating a wider range of veggies. This is one way to reduce the risk of nutritional deficiencies while at the same time adding variety to your diet (1).

Another thing you can do is start consuming other nutrient dense foods

  • Liver and other organ meats
  • Seaweed
  • Bone broth
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut and other fermented foods
  • Whole eggs
  • Coconut oil
  • Grass-fed beef or wild game

My friends over at Precision Nutrition have a 21 Super Foods Checklist that you can download. I’ve also created my own version below.

For those of you that are trying to go Paleo I’ve created this Paleo Super Food Checklist.

OBAMA AND VARIETY

In an article found in Vanity Fair, Former President Obama elaborated on why he only wears two different suits.

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

– Vanity Fair

He does this to avoid decision fatigue and speed up his feedback loop.  Most of us blame a lot of our troubles (especially when it comes to nutrition and exercise) on a lack of willpower.

As you know from this post, our willpower can get depleted over the course of the day. You typically start the day with your tank full and as the day unfolds you can deplete that willpower tank via the many small, and what you often may consider insignificant decisions.

  • Deciding what to eat for breakfast
  • What clothes to wear for work
  • Where to go for lunch

Other things like having to concentrate, feeling confused, getting frustrated, trying not to eat that donut (self-control), boredom, and anxiety also contribute to decision fatigue and lack of willpower.

Decision fatigue also makes what should be simple decisions more difficult by slowing down the feedback loop.

Your feedback loop is a system that your body and mind use to help you make decisions.

How a feedback loop works

  • First – You receive information to process. (Example: There is someone walking towards me and it looks like they’re going to say hi.)
  • Second – That information is translated in a way that has some sort of emotional or physical significance. (Example: They say hi and seem to be very friendly.)
  • Third – You make a decision or take action. (Example: They seem kind, I think I’ll continue talking to them. Maybe I’ll make a new friend out of this.)
  • Fourth – That decision or action is measured so that when put in the same situation or something similar you can refer to it again. (Example: That was a really cool exchange I just had with “Chuck.” Maybe meeting new people after all isn’t so scary after all.)

There are tons of feedback loops you use on a daily basis.

You know not to touch a hot stove because of a feedback loop. You spend time with some people and avoid others because of feedback loops. You often choose what to eat based on feedback loops.

However, feedback loops are often broken or influenced. For instance I love cheesecake. How do I know this? My feedback loop tells me so.

I see a dessert that looks appealing, smells appealing, I’ve heard rumors is appealing, and I know is appealing from previous encounters with it.

I know that if I eat that cheesecake it’s going to be delicious from the moment it touches my lips. There’s a good chance the pleasure center in my brain is going to go crazy and make me happy (for a little at least).

Ok, I’m going to eat that cheesecake.

Oh man! It has been confirmed. That cheesecake is and always will be delicious.

The problem here is that this feedback loop might go against a goal of mine to keep up a healthy body internally and externally.

In order to have an effective feedback loop you have to get feedback fast, you must be able to measure it, conceptualize it or give it meaning, and lastly be able to find motivation in it related to your goals.

Smashing Magazine did an outstanding job detailing how you can fix a broken feedback loop.

Using their model here’s an example of how you could do something similar related to eating healthier and losing weight.

SPEED

Feedback has to arrive fast. The slower you receive feedback the less it will influence you in the future. This is one reason why many of us struggle with trying to lose weight (or body fat). Progress is often very slow.

You can speed the process up by focusing first on behaviors instead of outcomes. Track things that are within your control like the ability to drink zero calorie beverages for one day.

You can speed it up even more by setting a goal of just having water with your breakfast instead of the Starbucks drink you usually get. Use this habit tracker to  keep tabs on your progress.

MEASURE IT

How do you know if what you’re doing is actually working. Using multiple ways to measure progress can tell you.

  • The scale
  • Body girth measurements
  • Body fat tests
  • Before and after pictures
  • A journal to track how you’re feeling day by day

GIVE IT MEANING

Lets say when you started your fitness journey you weight 200 pounds with 25% body fat (50 pounds was fat).

30 days later you get it checked again and you’re still 200 pounds but now 23% body fat. Instead of focusing solely on your weight or that you lost only 2% body fat. Understand that you just dropped 4 pounds of body fat and most likely added some metabolism boosting lean muscle.

MOTIVATION

Seeing progress on the scale, looking at your before and after pictures, and feeling great are all awesome and motivating. But what is the most motivating thing ever?

When you hear from someone else tell you how great you’re looking or how they’re amazed by the progress you’ve made.

What ever you’re trying to achieve think about partnering up with someone and getting at it together to keep each other accountable and motivated.

FOOD AS A REWARD MAKES SIMPLIFYING TOUGH

As you and I discussed in this and this post together, food provides us with immediate rewards.

Whole Health Source tells us what stimulates that reward system.

Experiments in rats and humans have outlined some of the qualities of food that are inherently rewarding:

  • Fat
  • Starch
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Meatiness (glutamate)
  • The absence of bitterness
  • Certain textures (e.g., soft or liquid calories, crunchy foods)
  • Certain aromas (e.g., esters found in many fruits)
  • Calorie density (“heavy” food)

Because eating and food has such a powerful psychological influence on us and feeds that need for instant gratification temporary reduction in the variety of foods that you eat may help to counter balance some of that.

  • I’m guilty of emotional eating
  • I’m guilty of binge eating
  • I’m also guilty of what I would call food addiction
  • Eating past the point of hunger
  • I’m guilty of being influenced by peers to eat “unhealthy items.”

Simplifying the variety in your choices and limiting some of the qualities in food that stimulate our reward system may help to counter balance some of the psychological effects of eating.

In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2) there’s a study in which researchers had women perform mouse clicking tasks in order to receive portions of Macaroni and Cheese.

One group of women were asked to perform these tasks to receive food everyday. Another group was asked to only do this once per week.
Participants that did this everyday eventually just quit working for food. They got sick of eating the same thing day in and day out. However, the group of women that only performed the mouse clicking tasks once per week kept working. They never got tired of the food.

Getting bored with food eliminates a lot of the reward associated with it. If you’re struggling to build healthy eating habits it may be in your best to forget about variety and learning a ton of new recipes. Instead, focus on 1 or 2, mastering them, and cooking them on auto-pilot

I’M COOL. I JUST PRACTICE EVERYTHING IN MODERATION

What the hell does that even mean?

In theory the idea of everything in moderation is awesome. In action it’s a big huge fail. Because the term is so ambiguous to most of us we have no idea how to practice moderation.

Essentially, we suck at it.

This past week I found twenty people that have used the phrase “everything in moderation” to describe their approach to nutrition. ,

I followed that up by asking them what “moderation” represented. I got twenty different descriptions and some folks had no clue how to describe what moderation meant.

So as it turns out, moderation varies from person to person. For some, drinking a six-pack of beer might be moderation. For others, having one beer might represent that.

A chocolate chip cookie for dessert each night might be moderation for some. While for others a chocolate chip cookie a week represents moderation.

I think you get me.

As discussed earlier in this article moderation requires willpower and given that we already know willpower is fleeting. Combine that with food companies creating items to stimulate our reward system and actually make us crave more and practicing it over the course of a day is going to be frick’n tough!

Give some thought to “everything in moderation.”

  • Have you defined it for yourself?
  • Can you measure it?
  • Are you using the phrase because you don’t want stuff to be off-limits?

I don’t know about you but I don’t want to be moderately good at things. I want to be totally awesome at them!

FINAL THOUGHTS, TIPS, AND PARTING ADVICE

Recently, I went through my closet and got rid of 90% of the clothes I own. I found that I only really wear a handful of different things each week. All that variety wasn’t even necessary.

I don’t want to look in my closet and have to think about what I am going to wear each day. By narrowing my choices I have to give this less and less thought.

I like doing this with my nutrition as well. Trying to figure out what to eat, what recipe to make,  and what I need to buy at the grocery store is too much for me to be thinking about when it comes to food. I’ve got other things I prefer to concentrate on.

When it comes to nutrition or anything in life really. I’ve found this to be a recipe for success for reducing decision fatigue and increasing my willpower.

  • Do the important things to start my day. No checking email, hopping on “The Book,” or scrolling through Instagram pics.
  • Plan tomorrow the night before. I like to choose 1-3 really important tasks that I need to  do for the day and dedicated 90 minutes to working on them. Getting this out of my head the night before allows me to wake up the next day and know exactly what I need to jump into right when I get up.
  • Learn the art of batching. No more trying to figure out what to cook each day. I’m cooking similar meals 1-2 days a week and having them ready to go so I never have to think about what I’m going to eat next. It’s already done! Here’s one of my go to recipes.
  • Automate anything that you can. I never want to think about bills so everything comes out automatically. School loans, utilities, rent. I even automate my social media.

When it comes to nutrition, I like dedicating entire days to one meal and eating it all throughout the day. Then the next day Switching up the protein source and or some veggies and repeating the process. If I feel the need for variety I just change-up the spices I use. A little garlic here, a little pepper there go a long way.

Where in your life can you cut some of the variety and choices you need to make every day?

What is one big step you can take towards simplifying something right now?

Justin

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Resource: Jinhee Choi, B. Kyu Kim, Incheol Choi, and Youjae Yi. “Variety-Seeking Tendency in Choice for Others: Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Causes.” Journal of Consumer Research, March 2006

Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash

Photo by JESHOOTS on Unsplash

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