How to Make Smarter Decisions About What You Eat

Forming opinions about things is a process of noticing good/bad information until we’ve crossed a magical “I have decided what I think about this thing!” threshold. When you’re selecting between two different kinds of food—a salad or a brownie—how do you decide what to eat?

Your choices depend on the marbles you pick up, information you notice, or which criteria you pay attention to. Over time, information supporting one side starts to outweigh information for the other side, which is supported by your intuition/gut/emotional response. (Newsflash: your intuition is not always smart.)

Two different criteria we might use to decide what to eat, for example, are nutrition and taste. Information that’s processed faster gets added to the scale faster, meaning that it’s easy to consider taste over everything else (especially very noticeable or salient information, like sugar, fat, and salt, that used to be more important for survival, but now lead us towards obesity).

People who focus their attention on the health value of food would look at the salad and brownie, and think about these items in terms of nutrition. Bing! They’d choose the salad. People who change their habits and make smarter dietary choices shift their values by emphasizing nutrition, viewing healthier food as more rewarding. Over the long run, people who process health-related information about food more quickly are better able to control their weight.

Focusing your attention is a key element of self-control. The way we control our own behavior and choices is really just a stand-in for our values: what do we value more in the moment?

How can we make smarter choices about food?

People who can’t improve their eating habits tend to get stuck, and continue to view “healthy” food as “less tasty.” Develop faster positive associations about nutritious food: healthy food can be delicious. (The Man Who Ate Everything is a great book if you want to get over food phobias.) Looking at or being exposed to something gives us more opportunities to think of all of its positive qualities, making us more likely to choose it. The closer something is to us, the more tempted we are. If you want to limit how much of something you eat, don’t buy it. Don’t go to a restaurant where it’s served. Stay away.

Spend time with people who make smarter choices. Make smart choices in advance: prepare your meals. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that healthy food doesn’t taste good. The more you prioritize nutrition, the easier that decision becomes. Studies (like this one) show links between BMI and what people value when they look at food.