Wikipedia describes decision fatigue as the deteriorating quality of decisions made by a person after a long session of decision-making. This can actually result in people avoiding having to make decisions entirely.

Steve Jobs (creator of Apple), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) are well known for their simple wardrobes – they each made the decision to buy a limited wardrobe so that they wore the same clothes every day, thereby omitting the decision of what to wear each day. Barack Obama worse only blue or grey suits throughout his time in office. It’s a bit like having a school uniform, not only does it mean that there is no fashion-consciousness amongst pupils, but there is no decision making at the beginning of the day as to what to wear.

Decision fatigue isn’t just about having too many choices to face, but the thought that there is a limited amount of will power that an individual has each day, and the longer you have been working uses up your ability to continue to make complex decisions. Thus, decisions are easier to make earlier in the day. Prisoners who are up before the parole board typically do better the earlier in the day that their case is scheduled. Those who are seen in the afternoon tend to have their parole denied more often than those in the morning, to the tune of 70% successful in the morning compared to 10% in the afternoon!

A study took two groups of people and sat them down to solve a puzzle. One group had a plate of freshly baked cookies on the table but were told not to eat any, the other group had the same cookies and were allowed to eat them. The first group gave up on the puzzle after 8 minutes. The second group worked on the puzzle for over 20 minutes. There was a third group who also had the puzzle to work on but no plate of cookies at all. They also worked on the puzzle for over 20 minutes. Deborah Cohen, a physician and senior natural scientists at RAND Corporation, and author of “A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Influences Behind The Obesity Epidemic – And How We Can End It” states “we think that our choices of what to buy and eat are thoughtful and deliberate and that what we eat is under our control, but it isn’t. Much of what we do is automatic and done without much thought”.

This makes complete sense when we look at how people struggle to maintain good food choices throughout the day. Whilst you may start off with great intentions and eat a healthy breakfast, by the time the afternoon arrives it becomes easier to cave in to the temptation of biscuits and cakes and a takeaway for dinner. Our resolve has faltered. This may not then be just down to the type of food you choose (some being much more addictive than others), but the ability you have to make a good choice. But it may be even more complicated than that. A recent study by a group of psychologists at Stanford University discovered that people’s beliefs in willpower affected how they managed it. Those who believed that willpower was in limited supply, and therefore needed a boost from glucose in order to replenish it, exhibited improved self-control after they had eaten a sugary snack. Those who believed that will power was plentiful and unlimited did not benefit from extra glucose intake and exhibited high levels of self-control with or without a sugary snack. Does this mean then that changing our perception of our willpower can enhance our decision making throughout the day? It would seem so.

When you have a belief of limited willpower, you tend to be constantly looking out for whether you are in need of a “boost”, or you label yourself as ‘someone who can’t get through the day without (fill in the blank)’. Do you ask yourself these questions throughout the day:

  • Am I tired?
  • Am I hungry?
  • Do I need a break?
  • How am I feeling?

If you tend to do this then it is highly likely you will then suggest to yourself that you do indeed need a break, or a boost of something to give you more energy. This is often tied into what you are eating since certain foods will only give you energy for a limited period of time before you need more to sustain your energy. Carbohydrates (glucose) and sugar (glucose) are used immediately in the cells for energy or stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen as reserves, but there is only a limited amount that the body can store. Muscle glycogen stores between 1,4000 and 2,000 calories (which is enough for about 90 minutes of endurance exercise) and the liver can provide about 400 calories. Fat stored in our fat cells however has a far longer ability to keep us fuelled (even on the leanest person) and we can keep going for days without eating if we are reliant on our fat stores.

So if your diet consists of largely carbohydrates then you will need to keep constantly “topping up” to renew your stores, otherwise you are likely to experience an afternoon slump, which is very common. The infamous ‘wall’ that marathon runners face when they are running out of energy is because their tank has run dry and they need to re-fuel. However, if someone is eating a low carbohydrate, high fat diet then they don’t experience this problem. Their body is able to keep on going because they are fat-adapted and have plenty of fuel to keep them going.

People who regularly implement intermittent fasting or eat a ketogenic (low carbohydrate, high fat) diet report a heightened sense of alertness and the ability to keep physically and mentally focused throughout the whole day without the need for constant snacking.

So it would appear that we have a two-fold problem; decision fatigue based on your belief system and decision fatigue based on your diet. And I believe one can help the other.

Changing the way you eat is never an easy task. It requires looking at food very differently. Food is a fuel that nourishes our body, builds muscle tissue and bones, keeps our skin healthy, gives us energy to complete the tasks we need to do and replenishes our cells on a daily basis, keeping our immune system healthy and all the functions of the body working optimally. Sadly, we tend to view food in today’s worlds as a source of entertainment, filling our shopping trolleys with all sorts of goodies and treats that will give us a dopamine hit, the feel good factor (that actually only lasts as long as the taste of the food on our tongue). Supermarkets take advantage of decision fatigue by placing foods such as confectionary and “treats” near to the checkouts so that they are more tempting whilst you wait in line.

Do you often tell yourself:

“I’ve eaten really healthily all day, I deserve this piece of cake”

“I’ve had such a busy day, one ready meal won’t do me any harm”

“It’s the weekend – I want to have fun, I’ll start eating better on Monday”

Typically these thoughts occur later in the day, when your resolve has started to crumble, and your decision fatigue is settling in for the duration. Deborah Cohen explains: “Decision making, thinking, concentrating, and exerting self-control uses up mental energy, making us more vulnerable to choices we wouldn’t ordinarily make”.

Setting yourself up to succeed right from the start will make your eating decisions much easier when your brain starts trying to ‘reason’ with you. Simplifying your menu sounds as though it will make life boring, but certainly in the beginning it will make decisions much easier. Years ago it was very common to have certain meals each day of the week; roast on Sunday, left-overs on Monday, fish on Friday etc.. Cooking from scratch and using up the left-overs, keeping meals simple and basic and no snacking between meals was standard for most families. And notably we didn’t have the epidemic of obesity and diseases that we are now experiencing today. Nowadays we can’t seem to get through the morning without reaching for a snack, we have to send snacks to school with our children (for fear that the little darlings will simply run out of energy and flop with exhaustion before lunch) and we tell ourselves that we don’t have the time to cook a meal when there are so many ways to make this easy for ourselves.

How often do you actually write down a shopping list – and stick to it? Knowing beforehand what you want to buy – and eat – again makes the decision making so much easier to adhere to when you are in the store. If you are simply wandering around unsure of what you need, then you are highly likely to end up at the checkout with a trolley full of foods that you don’t need, are unhealthy and ultimately result in an emptier purse.

Choose foods that will give you a long lasting energy. So for breakfast eat eggs and bacon (some mushrooms and spinach on the side if you desire) but leave out the toast. The protein and fats from the eggs and bacon will sustain you until your next meal – the toast will give you that burst of short-lived glucose, putting you at greater risk of your body demanding more by mid-morning.

Protein and fat are absolute essentials for us to include in our diet. Carbohydrates are completely non-essential, and yet the vast majority of the population rely on carbohydrates as their primary intake of food. Protein provides the building blocks for every cell within the body. It is used to build and repair body tissues, bones, muscles, cartilage and skin. Protein is also used to make enzymes and hormones. The protein leverage theory states that we will continue to eat until we have reached our protein threshold for the day – this means that if you are under-eating protein (and most people are) then you will continue to eat until your body has received an adequate amount. As you will probably realise, this can contribute to you not only over-eating, but eating the wrong foods because your body is continually trying to use what it can to keep you healthy. Fats are also essential – and something that we have been sadly lacking in the past 50 years due to the low fat paradigm that has been so prevalent. This was based on flawed science that appeared to demonstrate that saturated fat caused heart disease and that cholesterol was dangerous. Recent evidence has shown both of these to be unfounded. Fats are essential for both structural and metabolic functions in the body, maintaining skin and hair, helping to regulate body temperature, promoting healthy cell function, and protecting vital organs against shock and damage. It can also protect the body against disease by sequestering offending substances into fat tissue and storing them there until it can be excreted by the body. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble, meaning that they can only be absorbed by the body when consumed with fat – so if you are eating all your veggies steamed without fat then you won’t be absorbing any of the fat soluble vitamins that they contain.

We are constantly (still!) told to avoid saturated fat, but to do so would mean avoiding ALL fats because all foods that contain fat contain all three types of fat; saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Dairy is the only food group that contains more saturated than unsaturated fat. To help you understand how skewed the advice that we are given is, mackerel has twice the total fat and one and a half times the saturated fat of a sirloin steak, and yet we are advised to eat little to no red meat but plenty of fish! Lard contains more monounsaturated fat than olive oil and yet we are told to consume plenty of ‘heart healthy” olive oil but not animal fat! One tablespoon of olive oil can have more saturated fat than a 100g pork chop. You get the picture! The low-fat paradigm has a lot to answer for its contribution to ill-health amongst the population. For more on this click here.

Tips for combatting decision fatigue and making better food choices:

  • Simplify the choices you have to make in your day
  • Prioritise the important decisions for earlier in the day
  • Keep the momentum going – try not to stop when you are on task
  • Prioritise your sleep – if you are not sleeping well, then all your decisions the following day will be negatively affected
  • Eat properly to fuel your body and brain
  • Prioritise protein, control carbohydrates, fill with fat.
  • Use a shopping list
  • Buy a slow cooker or Instant Pot – it is a great way to have a delicious healthy meal waiting for you when you get home
  • Prepare on the weekend and freeze meal-sized portions
  • Get the family involved in the meal prep – make it fun and a learning experience for little ones

What have you found works for you?