Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Grocery Shopping with RadioLab

One of the major complaints I get when I talk to people about changing their diet (and I get many), is that it takes longer to do food shopping because you are actually having (gasp!) read labels to determine whether or not the food fits the bill.  Not only is the extra time spent sometimes frustrating, but the amount of choices that are available to us can seem overwhelming.  Hearing these complaints reminding me of an episode of one of SkepticRD's favorite podcasts: RadioLab, particularly the Season 5 episode on "Choice."  The full episode is available here.:
The podcast does contain a lot of interesting information on how our choices can be influenced by, how much information we are presented with, what kind of pressure we are under to remember information, the connection between our "rational" and "emotional" parts of our brain, what kind of reinforcement we have about our choices, perceptions from our childhood, and even unconscious messages that our society sends us.  It is an hour long podcast, and definitely worth listening to the whole thing, but I am going to focus on the first part of the podcast, how having so many choices can make our decisions harder.
**Soapbox**Now, the fear that SkepticRD has now is that I am going to trigger a discussion on free-will vs. not, or that I am claiming that people make decisions about food based solely on whether or not they had a bad childhood.  I am using the evidence presented in the podcast to talk about how the complexity of our brains can influence how we make choices when it comes to our food, and how to decrease the stress associated with it.**Step off soapbox**
One of the things that can influence us to make not so good choices when it comes to food is simply that we have so many choices to make when we go into the grocery stores.  I personally am very glad that I do have a variety of grocery stores to choose from that contain a variety of different items, but at the same time this privilege can turn into a nightmare when trying to best take care of ourselves.  Here are some things you can do to narrow down the choices, avoid information overload, and save some time while shopping.
1) Do your research on what food items you need ahead of time vs. trying to make it up as you go along in the store.
2) Use your research to make up a list, whether you use pencil and paper or your SmartPhone.
3) Make the list as specific as possible.  This way you only have to visit specific areas of the store and you don't have to wander aimlessly.  You will also not be faced with as many choices on one item.  For example, if you put down "unsweetened coconut milk" instead of "dairy substitute" you will have narrowed it down where you just have to compare prices between a much smaller amount of items.
4) Shop "the perimeter" of the store as much as you can.  Here is where you are going to find most of the basics of a healthy meal plan—produce and protein.
5) Check out farmer's markets whenever you can, you will usually have less, but good quality, choices to make.
6) Be very careful of the specialty stores—here is where you really want to have a list or you will spend a lot of time looking at everything (if you enjoy recreational shopping, which SkepticRD does not, you can ignore this).  Boyfriend of SkepticRD can attest to what happens if I go in the spice shop without a list.
7) Keep in mind that you will get faster at picking out things on the label and ingredient list with practice.  You can amaze your friends with how quickly you can pick out food allergens with a glance!
8) Pick a day of the week to do your shopping and keep to it as much as you can.  That way you have put it on your calendar, made a date, cleared the time, etc.
9) Try to just shop for food items instead of trying to buy all the household items at once.  (I'm saying this to help you limit the information overload, but I also just happen to think that having food, cat litter, and a decorative Buddha statue in your cart all at the same time is just weird.)
10)  Shop with only a certain amount of cash on hand.  You will be less likely to spend time looking at things when you know you don't have the money to spend on it anyway.
Another point that was made in the podcast is that if people are under duress of some sort they are less likely to make choices with the rational part of their brain.  Once again, it's not that you CAN'T make rational choices it's just that it's more difficult.  Some ways that you can keep "stress" from influencing your decisions are:
1) Do not shop when you are hungry, particularly if you are experiencing that combination of hungry and cranky/angry (you know who you are!) called "hangry."  At this point, it's tempting to just shout out your favorite curse words and just throw whatever into your cart just so that you can get out of there.  (Not that SkepticRD knows what this is like.  Not at all.)
2) Do not be afraid to stick with simple to prepare recipes with simple to prepare ingredients, especially when you are first making changes.  If you want to eat the same thing for lunch for the rest of this week because it causes you less anxiety, do it.  Heck, I have had people that would eat the same thing for tw or three meals a day until they started to feel more comfortable with their new plan. Once you are ready to experiment you can branch out.  Otherwise, driving yourself crazy trying to find that one particular spice might decrease your ability to stick with your plan.
3) If you hate crowds like SkepticRD does, try to shop during hours when the stores are less crowded if you can.
Once again, we have some pretty fascinating brains that process a lot of information.  Hopefully you can use some of the above suggestions to help make the best decisions for you!

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