If it were easy, friend, they wouldn’t call it a challenge.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve slipped up. Pretend that you didn’t and keep going.Your Future Self
Tricks of the trade, the food trade that is
We all like to think we’re in control of what we eat, but in fact, there are many factors beyond willpower influencing our decisions. Food makers and advertisers influence our behavior in a number of ways.
They engineer products to make you want more
Coke is a perfect example. Coke contains caffeine, which is a stimulant and diuretic. Caffeine gives you a mental boost and increases energy. That feels good. And, as a diuretic, caffeine is dehydrating.
Coke also contains sodium–45 mg of it per 12-ounce can. That might not sound like a lot, but why is sodium even there in the first place?
Because dehydration + sodium intake = thirst
thirst = more consumption of Coke
Coke also contains sugar–39 g in the same 12-ounce can. (That’s over 9 teaspoons of sugar, by the way.) Why so much?
- To mask the sodium, because saltwater isn’t palatable, and
- To activate the reward center of your brain so that you’ll associate drinking Coke with feeling good.
Remember their slogan “Have a Coke and a smile”? Yeah, they know what they’re doing.
Two words: bliss point
The bliss point is the amount of an ingredient such as sugar, salt, or fat which optimizes palatability of a food. And by “optimizes palatability” we mean induces the release of dopamine, an endorphin that activates the reward center of your brain, makes you remember what you did to get that feeling, and makes you want to do it again.
Food makers test the bliss points of sugar, salt, and fat in their products and don’t stop tinkering with their recipes until they can optimize all three resulting in the holy grail of addictive food.
It’s not just Snickers bars that benefit from bliss point manipulation. Howard Moskowitz, the bliss point pioneer, used bliss points to perfect spaghetti sauce, soup, pizza, pickles, and, of course, soda. It’s probably a safe bet that if it’s processed, it’s been “optimized” in this way.
Remember the slogan for Lay’s potato chips? “Betcha can’t eat just one!” Uh huh. They also know what they’re doing.
They getcha with advertising
Here’s an industry secret: Advertising works. That’s why they do it. In fact, food makers spend $33 billion a year on advertising, because it works so well.
We are exposed to an ad every 14 seconds that we are awake across all possible mediums–TV, radio, internet, print, signs, buses, benches, and even trailing low-flying planes in our airspace. While you may think you’re immune, you probably aren’t. Remember: Advertising works.
Here’s proof. This study showed that priming a participant with food ads on television led to more thoughts about food and a greater desire to eat. In another study, adults and children were subjected to television and internet ads for processed foods. Both parents and children evaluated the products more favorably, had a greater desire to consume the products, and thought the product could be consumed more frequently than those in control conditions. In fact, parents were even more affected by the ads than children were! It seems as if advertising desensitizes us to the lack of healthfulness in the product.
They take advantage of your vulnerabilities
Here’s another industry secret: Product placement also works. Hello candy at the cash register!
You probably don’t write “candy bars” on your grocery list, and yet you’ve surely succumbed to buying one. Food makers know this and pay good money for checkout real estate.
When you’re in the checkout line, you’re a captive audience for anything promoted around you. You’ve already made countless decisions and are, perhaps, running low on willpower having utilized it so many other times in the store. In other words, you’re highly suggestible. The candy company Mars refers to checkout as “the emotional low point of the shopping journey.”
There are plenty of other highly suggestible locations in the supermarket for which food makers bid, including the aisle ends and at eye-level (for adults or children, depending on the intended consumer). Food makers use these locations to nudge you into buying their product. See the CSPI’s 8 Ways Supermarkets Get You to Buy More (Often Junk) Food for more examples.
Additionally, as you move through the supermarket you are affronted with countless decisions. Even if you have a list in hand, you still have to decide which brand, size, and price point you’re comfortable with for every single item. Meanwhile, you must navigate through ads, price promotions, strategic product placement, appetizing aromas, taste tests, and overcrowded aisles.
Add to that the fact that you may be shopping late in the day after you’ve made countless decisions for yourself, your family, and your work, and you’re likely experiencing decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is mental fatigue brought about by making decisions and utilizing willpower.
You see, making decisions and using willpower depletes our ability to make decisions and use willpower.
When you are mentally fatigued, you cope by doing one of two things.
1. You make decisions impulsively (ahh, that’s how the candy bar got in your hand), or
2. You delay decision-making all together.
Luckily (or unluckily) there’s a cure for decision fatigue, and it’s glucose. Eating restores our ability to make decisions and use willpower, which may explain why we crave certain foods when we’re fatigued or why some of our most impulsive behaviors are food-related.
So, what is one to do?
How to outsmart the food industry
- Recognize persuasion techniques for what they are.
- Make important food decisions earlier in the day.
- Have a real food snack before grocery shopping.
- Shop with a list and make it as specific as possible down to the brand, flavor, and size of the item, if applicable.
- Organize your list in the same order as the store, so you can efficiently navigate through only the aisles you need.
- Utilize the junk-food-free checkout lane where available (or self-checkout, if there are fewer junk food options there). For more info, see the CSPI’s (Un)Healthy Checkout page.
- When possible, shop without children. It’s hard enough to resist your own temptations let alone theirs.
- Make a meal plan when your willpower is strong. Set yourself up for success by doing as much prep work as you can in advance.
- In your own space–your home, work, and routine–make real food options visible, accessible, and when able, pre-prepped (washed, chopped, assembled, etc) for easy decision-making.
- Reduce your exposure to intense flavors like Jacked Ranch Dipped Hot Wing flavored Doritos. (Yes, that’s a real product. We refuse to call it food.) Intense flavors overstimulate us and lead to habituation, which makes us want more stimulating foods and makes it difficult to take pleasure in simpler foods like real cheese.
- Reduce variety. The more choices we have, the more we eat. Order fewer items off the menu and skip variety packs.
- Limit your exposure to consumer messages as much as possible.
- Work on one food habit change at a time until it’s automatic. Then move on to another.
- Vote with your wallet by frequenting stores and restaurants with more responsible marketing techniques, like farmers markets instead of supermarkets.
Use the power of a nudge on yourself. In your kitchen, rearrange your food so that real food options are displayed in plain sight and any processed foods you aren’t willing to part with yet are out of sight and out of mind.
Visit the Challenge forum. Tell us when decision fatigue is the worst for you and what you intend to do to prevent it going forward.