With Food Choices, Are You a "Maximizer" or a "Satisficer?"

For more satisfying eating, decide to become a "satisficer."

Posted Jun 05, 2012

“Americans Find Doing Their Own Taxes Simpler Than Improving Diet and Health” blared a recent headline in ScienceDaily, the reputable online journal. 

I re-read this headline several times, and it still said the same thing!

What?!? I thought. Has everyone gone crazy? Doing your own taxes is like extracting your own tooth with a rusty pliers, while eating is a daily pleasure. What’s going on here? 

Delving a little deeper into the article, it turns out that 52 percent of Americans think doing their taxes is easier than figuring out what to eat to be healthy. And 76 percent of Americans surveyed find it maddening to sort through conflicting and ever-changing advice about nutrition. OK, I get that. Eggs are bad for you. No, eggs are good for you. Dairy helps your bones. Dairy clogs your arteries. Carbs make you gain weight. Carbs are the basis of a healthy diet. Some fat—bad; some fat—good.   

Still, frustrating as it may be to juggle all this information, is it really painful? There must be something else going on here. 

Of course part of the problem is that we have so many food choices. Choosing becomes overwhelming, and "decision fatigue" even saps your willpower for other tasks, recent research suggests. 

But I think the main problem is something else: Some people are on a quest for what I call “salvation through perfect eating.” These food perfectionists can’t relax and enjoy their food because they worry that their food choices will undermine their health goals or rigid diet rules.

The distorted thinking behind the quest for perfect eating goes something like this: “If I could only choose and eat the correct foods, I would be able to arrive at the perfect weight/be maximally healthy/find the perfect partner/live forever/raise perfect children.” (Choose one.) With so much seemingly at stake, it's understandable that deciding what to eat would feel painful. There’s actually a word for this condition—“orthorexia,” literally correct eating, defined as a fixation on avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy.

To provide you with a possible solution to this problem, I’ve borrowed a theory, and it’s one of my favorite theories because it’s really helped me with my decision-making

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Dr. Barry Schwartz divides decision-makers into two groups—maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers are perfectionists. They focus on making the perfect choice in situations as small as choosing a gallon of milk and as large as choosing a life partner. They agonize over decisions, because their decisions must be perfect.  They also spend a lot of time on decisions. If you need to have the perfect sweater, say, then you’ve got to visit store after store to hunt it down.

When satisficers make a decision, on the other hand, they think about their goals and select a few criteria that must be met by the decision. For example, the sweater must be a cardigan, it must be washable, and it must be less than $30. Once a satisficer finds a sweater that meets these criteria, he or she closes the deal.  It’s not that the satisficer necessarily settles for less; she settles for “good enough” and “what works for me.”

When it comes to food choices, mazimizers must make the perfect choice all the time.  Satisficers make good-enough choices based on a few goals—health, pleasure, and good-enough weight, say—and forget about being perfect.

Unless you require a special food program because of illness or a medical condition, you could become a food satisficer. Instead of being overwhelmed by too many choices, too much information, and the need to be perfect, you could:

  • Choose some foods that you were in the mood for and not berate yourself that you were “giving in” to cravings. 
  • Aim for “good-enough” food choices and healthy portion sizes. (Try these healthy eating guidelines.)
  • Realize that you won’t be able to eat in a perfectly healthy way all the time and let the guilt go.

If you can become a satisficer, you will find it easier to shop for food, prepare it, eat it and enjoy it.  And you’ll have more time to do your taxes—or whatever activities you love the most.

(c) Meg Selig

I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For shorter tidbits on habit change, willpower, and healthy living, follow me on Twitter or like me on Facebook.


"Even saps your willpower..." Baumeister, R. & Tierney, J. Willpower (2011). NY: Penguin Press, p. 88 ff.

"Americans Find Doing Their Own Taxes Simpler Than Improving Diet and Health," http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120523145655.htm.

Schwartz, B. The Paradox of Choice (2005). (NY: HarperCollins).

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