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How to Make Better Food Choices

Mindfulness may help to manage a never-ending stream of food-related decisions.

Key points

  • Research suggests that we make over 200 food-related choices every day.
  • Most people underestimate the number of choices and the environmental cues that shape them.
  • Increased mindfulness may help to draw attention to a choice, gather information and evaluate the outcome.

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." —Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of “Physiologie du gout” (The Physiology of Taste)

Food is an essential part of life. Most people in the Western world will enjoy at least three meals a day, interspersed with snacks or little treats anytime the munchies kick in. A person’s diet is linked to their physical and mental well-being, with an emerging body of research highlighting the link between gut bacteria and psychological health. The importance of making informed meal choices has never been as obvious, however, many people continue to fall into the luring trap posed by highly processed foods of low nutritional value. If people know that kale smoothies beat bacon butties, why do they keep choosing what’s bad for them?

Number of Food Choices

One reason for a poor diet is the eye-watering number of food choices we have to make each day. We face a seemingly never-ending stream of decisions, which places a significant cognitive burden on our busy minds.

Try to answer the following question: How many daily decisions do you make that are related to food and eating?

A study from Cornell University suggests that people grossly underestimate their number of daily food choices. Trying to learn about eating habits and mindless food consumption, the researchers asked 139 people to report when, what, how much, where, and with whom they ate. Additionally, three individuals completed a separate exercise, which required them to go about their daily tasks and click a digital counting device every time they chose to eat.

The researchers found that before completing the study, participants’ estimates of food choices were rather low, hovering at an average of 14.4 choices. By comparison, the actual numbers that emerged when people were prompted with more detailed questions suggested 226.7 food-related decisions every day. If this number seems too high, why don’t you have a go at completing a personal food decision journal for a day? You might be surprised by the insights that you gain.

In a follow-up study, the researchers further investigated how much attention participants paid to environmental cues influencing their food choices. A field experiment outside the lab cleverly manipulated people’s plates and portion sizes. Larger sizes led participants to consume larger quantities of food. Yet when questioned, people showed little awareness of how their food environment influenced later choices. These findings are consistent with an established body of research suggesting that the decision environment or choice architecture plays a crucial role in shaping people’s decision-making, which is too often overlooked.

The Importance of Mindfulness

The research presented above offers several interesting insights. First, we make a lot more food choices than we might think. We’re faced with a constant series of small decisions from the moment we crawl out of bed and begin to contemplate our breakfast. These decisions do not only pertain to the type of food we consume but also to related aspects such as the social environment of a meal. Secondly, we are often unaware of the cues that may trigger or sway a decision—especially if the choice appears trivial or inconsequential. A little biscuit with that morning coffee? Don’t mind if I do!

A key factor that may help increase awareness and improve subsequent food choices is a heightened state of mindfulness. This involves being more present in the moment and taking greater note of both external surroundings and internal sensations. Indeed, research suggests that mindfulness can be beneficial at different stages of a decision. Greater levels of awareness may help people recognise when a food choice is being made. It may also assist them in gathering information about their choice—this might involve a conscious comparison of different ingredients or nutritional values. Finally, mindfulness may support people in responding to feedback about their recent food choices, for example alerting them to feelings of fullness or general satisfaction gained from different food sources.

While it isn’t healthy to obsess over every little food choice we make, a general awareness of the vast number of daily choices may contribute to better health and happiness.


Wansink, B., & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook. Environment and Behavior, 39(1), 106-123.

More from Eva M. Krockow Ph.D.
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