Last Updated on April 7, 2022 by Katherine Dittmann, MA, MS, RD
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by food decisions. So how do we answer the question, “What should I eat?”
Whether it’s the absurd abundance of options available at home or in the workplace or it’s that our options seem limited and nothing sounds good, we tend to rationalize the heck out of deciding what to actually eat.
Either way, the problem is that the rational mind alone doesn’t do a great job of feeding the body. Sadly, the mind is often awash with rules and “shoulds” that interfere with the part of us that truly does know what to eat: the body itself.
The ultimate goal of eating intuitively and mindfully is to be attuned to our bodies’ internal cues and sensations in order to use this information when making food decisions. We temper this feedback with the knowledge of the rational mind when necessary.
But this isn’t always easy to do. Read on for some common decision-making struggles I hear from my clients in eating recovery. I’ll give clues to the origin of these fears and offer some strategies to overcome them.
You are afraid of making the “wrong” choice.
Imagine reading a restaurant menu trying to decide what to order. A few things sound really good, but how do you know what to get? If you order the Club Sandwich, what if it turns out that the Tuna Melt is actually better? What if one is more nutritious? Or more delicious?
What if you pick the wrong one?
The question is, better how? All of these potential points of comparison are a recipe for decision fatigue. There is no way to make a perfect decision based on analytical reasoning alone.
At some point, you have to trust your gut. But if you are suspicious of your gut instincts, this poses a problem.
Clients have told me that they perseverate for hours after a meal if they suspect that there was somehow a better choice to be made.
It’s decision regret crossed with serious FOMO.
Here’s the deal though: they are all just choices! Sometimes you get lucky and pick the perfect intersection of yummy, nutritious, and satisfying. You get exactly what you want.
And sometimes you don’t.
Oh well. It doesn’t matter. You know why? You can have the other thing some other time. Or not. You have literally thousands of eating opportunities ahead of you and, statistically speaking, they won’t all be perfect.
You worry you won’t like it.
There is a phase in recovery for some people that embodies the maxim, “If I’m going to eat it, I’d better like it.”
What a set up!
Just like in the example above, it is impossible for you to always love everything that goes into your mouth.
I have had clients tell me that they actually get angry if their food doesn’t taste good. Luckily, this phase passes and most people come to understand that they have set some seriously unrealistic expectations for their food.
One way to coax this phase along is to recognize the black-and-white thinking here.
The reality is, we don’t either love food or hate it all the time. Sometimes it’s “meh,” but edible. That’s life. The good, the bad, and the neutral with all points between.
You have unchallenged rules or beliefs about a food you want to eat.
Often, self-imposed rules arise from the mere fact that there are too many options. We think that having more rules will narrow the field.
But the reality for people in eating recovery is that the more dietary restrictions you have, the tougher it is to find something to eat. Even simply being a vegetarian rules out a lot of menu items.
And so does being a picky eater or having a nutrition-related disease like celiac.
We all have to understand what is and is not within our control when making food decisions. Strict preferences are within our control to a large degree. Diseases are less so.
One strategy that helps with letting go of self-imposed restrictions is to assess whether the rule is making your life harder or easier. For example, if you won’t eat cheese because of some unsubstantiated belief, then you are adding an immense burden to your recovery.
On the other hand, if you have a casein (milk protein) allergy, then not eating cheese is an act of self-care and respect for your body.
The bottom line is you must be totally honest with yourself and align with the truth and your own best interest, not bogus nutrition information and trendy diets.
You are afraid of feeling guilty if you eat the thing you really want.
One of the core tenets of eating intuitively is giving yourself unconditional permission to eat whatever you want.
This sounds like the ultimate in food freedom, but in reality, it’s easier said than done.
Let’s imagine you decide to take a risk and order dessert believing full permission was granted. But then, slowly, the guilt creeps in.
It feels like you just did something you really weren’t supposed to.
Honestly, guilt from eating can be one of the more pesky hurdles for some in the recovery process. There are lots of ways to work with guilt, but one of the simplest starting points is to just slow down and enjoy the food that was so hard to feel OK about. Can you allow yourself to enjoy food without guilt?
Even if guilt still shows up, try changing the internal script from, “Uh-oh,” to something like, “Even though that was a little scary, I really did enjoy that food. And it’s normal for people to eat all kinds of foods. It’s OK.”
You worry about what others will think about your choice.
You may have spent an inordinate amount of time lurking over other people’s plates, peering into their grocery baskets, and judging them on their choices.
And in doing so, you probably developed some opinions about yourself as well. You figure everyone else is probably judging you, so you always want to make a good impression.
Even worse, you worry that people will link what you are eating to your body shape and size. Darker still, you worry that they will judge who you are as a person, based on that.
First, it’s true. People are judgey. We just are. We constantly take in information and evaluate it. It’s human nature.
But are people actually making the types of judgments and conclusions you think they are? Probably not. We all have our own points of reference and ideas about how things are or should be.
And it should go without saying that anyone who infers anything about your worth as a person based on what you eat and how you look needs to take a good hard look at their own implicit biases.
The bottom line is that any effort to try to control how others perceive us only goes so far.
So get what you want to get. Eat what you want to eat. Defend the body you have.
I promise, there will always be critics and moralizers who won’t be pleased with your decision. Just don’t do it to yourself.
Everything just looks so good and you don’t want to miss out!
Maybe you are having dim sum in Chinatown. Or you are at the finest Parisian cheese shop. The sad truth is, you can’t eat all the things. Even if you have tried to before, I’m sure it didn’t end well.
Some people just make a choice and leave the rest. No biggie. But for others, the agony of those that were left behind untasted can feel akin to a loss. It’s OK to be disappointed, but only for a moment. Quickly remember that you only have enough space in your life (and stomach) for a few well-chosen items. Make your choice and stick with it. You can always come back again.
Do you have a scenario in which you really struggled to make a decision, but were able to work it out in the end? Leave a comment below to share your success story!