Do Lots of Choices Make You Happy or Just Fat?

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When I was a young university student I used to stop by the open-air market for fresh fruit and veggies and take my time selecting what I thought would be the absolute best produce in the pile.

"You'll never find a husband," one vendor said to me.

Happy to say he was wrong. I did find love. And I also did feel I selected some of the best apples in town.

But now, when I stand in front of a supermarket isle with 50 different toothpastes to choose from I often feel I'll never be able to pick the best one, and I have no fun looking through all the options. I know my apples and enjoy handling them, but I'm just looking for ordinary toothpaste, you know, the kind that cleans teeth and tastes like toothpaste.

How does the enormous choice we have in food affect us?

Variety is the spice of overeating

A summary of 39 studies concludes that having many choices makes us eat more, especially when the extra variety is from energy-dense, tempting foods.

Research also suggests satiety is relative. You may be too full to eat another bite of salad, but when offered dessert you're hungry enough - and that's because dessert offers a new, pleasurable, sensory experience.

Most of the studies suggest that the tendency to overeat in reaction to greater variety of food is dependent on the food's energy density and potential sensory pleasure; offering a greater variety of lettuce, broccoli and oranges doesn't cause overeating, but presenting a great variety of sweet, fatty and salty options, each with their own taste and mouth feel, does.

Variety is the spice of life but too much variety is the spice of overeating. It's hard to stop eating the box of chocolates when you're excited to find out what comes next.

Back to the supermarket shelf, the one with 100 types of cereal. Why does looking at that selection make me sad? Why does a buffet with 20 kinds of pastry leave me with sense of regret?

What's wrong with choice?

Psychologist Barry Schwartz explains the suffering caused by over-choice in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.

With too many choices, it's hard to choose at all. You put the choice off.

Even if you make a choice, you're less satisfied with your choice. It's easy to imagine a better choice. With every decision there's chance for regret and disappointment.

Because when there are lots of alternatives there are lots of lost opportunities and paths not taken.

With ample choices there's also escalation of expectation -- our expectations go through the roof -- and it becomes difficult to have a pleasant surprise.

That's why many high achievers opt to simplify their lives by reducing the amount of decisions and choices they need to make. Michael Lewis describes in his recent Vanity Fair profile President Obama's voluntary simplicity: To maximize his ability to make the right choices, the president creates an environment where he eliminates trivial choices, including what to eat for breakfast or what to wear each day - all of his suits are blue and gray, for example.

A simpler pantry

Some choice is good. Too much isn't. There's a secret magic number and we have to figure out what that number is for us.

Limiting the variety of tempting, high-calorie foods has the potential to help prevent overeating. Increasing the variety of healthy foods might be an easy way to give us the satisfaction of choice without the downside of overindugance.

One of the things I do when I'm in the presence of plenty is to completely ignore the multitude of options. I'll eat just what I usually eat at home instead of falling for the generous breakfast buffet offerings. I know that might sound boring, but eating the same breakfast every day brings me a sense of calm - and keeps me from tasting it all.

How do you handle endless choices?

Dr. Ayala

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