The average grocery store in the U.S. now has up to 60,000 different items in stock. That's good news if you've always wanted a mango chipotle salad dressing, but for most of us that's just too many food choices. And research shows that choice overload may actually be contributing to the obesity epidemic.
I like grocery shopping since I'm in the food and nutrition business. But with the expanding number of products for sale, it now takes me a lot longer to do it. Supermarkets are where food manufacturers showcase their latest and greatest products, so everything that fills the shelves is of interest to me. How else could I possibly know there are low sodium olives and braised beef flavor with sweet potato dog treats?
But for most people, food shopping is a chore - a dreaded chore. The more people you have to feed, the more dreaded it is because the pantry never remains stocked for very long. And each trip back to the store involves another round of decision-making as you take in all those choices.
A simple shopping list is not enough to help you win the battle against too many food choices.
Food Choice and Hunger
No matter how much you may like macaroni and cheese, it would soon lose its appeal if you had to eat it over and over again (toddlers excluded). Research shows that appetite declines, regardless of physical hunger, when limited to eating the same food day after day. This loss of interest in food is also seen in people who have lost their sense of taste.
The other side of that coin is called hedonic hunger. That is when you eat more than you physically need because you can move from one food to another to get a new taste sensation. Our enjoyment of food over-rides our sensation of satiety. That's what happens every time we order dessert immediately after a meal.
When food shopping, we are not literally consuming everything we put into our carts, but we are "setting the table" for what we might consume once we get that food home. How well we make those decisions can contribute to overeating.
Overchoice and Overeating
Careless Decisions: Overwhelmed by having to make so many decisions you grow mentally tired of evaluating all the choices. To simplify the process you may ignore important information (price, nutrient content, health claims), make an impulsive decision or don't choose at all, even if it's something you really needed. That is how you leave the store with a familiar brand of cereal instead of the high fiber, low sugar one you meant to buy.
Incomplete Decisions: You make a decision but are not satisfied with it because you don't know if you saw every possible choice, and fear there may have been something better. Your enjoyment of that food is diminished by a feeling of uncertainty about what you may have missed and you are likely to eat more of it trying to become satisfied. That is how you can polish off a half-gallon of low fat ice cream in a few days so you can go back to look for more options.
Irrational Decisions: The availability of so many tempting choices can over-ride your rational, decision-making process and make it easier to select foods for other reasons, such as to reward yourself or satisfy emotional needs. That is how you arrive home with so many items that were not on your shopping list.
To avoid poor decisions when food shopping, my advice is to:
- always have a list
- never shop when hungry
- pay in cash
What works for you?