Decision Inertia

Does decision inertia contribute to food choices? At Cooking2Thrive, we’ve long observed that adherence to specific dietary restrictions is not necessarily about the availability of compliant food or even delicious choices. While those “reasons” may dominate the rhetoric, they often don’t match actual situational decision-making.

Fear of change is terminology commonly used to explain a lack of dietary compliance. But we all encounter change every day and are able to adapt with minimal resistance which makes me wonder if that terminology accurately and adequately addresses resistance to healthy decisions. Decision inertia feels more accurate.

And while it goes without saying that behavior patterns will be individual, myriad, and layered, a willingness to sort through our particular situation and motivation is the way each of us can find a healthier path forward. For some of us, decision inertia is an important layer to consider.

What is it?

A study published in 2016, described decision inertia as “the tendency to repeat a previous choice, regardless of its outcome, in a subsequent decision.”

The significant phrase seems to be regardless of its outcome.

Why would we repeat a choice even if it has led to a poor outcome previously?

The same study cites a study (1) by Erev and Haruvy that concludes: “…there exists a strong tendency to simply repeat the most recent decision, which is even stronger than the tendency to react optimally to the most recent outcome.” 

The 2016 study seems to indicate that “this behavioral tendency is positively associated with an individual’s preference for consistency, and that the effect of decision inertia is stronger in voluntary choices than in required choices.”

How does this relate to food choices?

In general, it seems that when we’re just rocking along in life, we’ll tend to make the same decision over and over at different times and in different settings unless we believe we HAVE to make a different choice. That certainly seems true with food choices. We tend to repeatedly cook and eat our favorites. And they creep into our shopping carts even if they’re not on the list.

On the other hand, if you get food poisoning from eating at a certain restaurant, you’ll probably be less willing to eat at that restaurant because you believe you MUST make a different choice in order to avoid severe discomfort. The same is most likely true if you’ve had a severe allergic reaction to a food. Avoiding that food may feel voluntary until you suddenly can’t breathe. At that point, your understanding of “mandatory” avoidance of that food can shift swiftly and radically.

What about when a doctor recommends a certain diet?

Even if a doctor explains the risks, a recommendation can sound voluntary. And with voluntary decisions, we’re more likely to make the same choices we’ve always made. Even when we learn those decisions aren’t healthy, we often default to the comfort of consistency.

Can this be changed?

Of course it can. We are all ultimately in control of our decisions and we are all capable of change.

Awareness is the beginning.

Making mindful decisions and recording the outcome over a period of time can help you see patterns you may not have noticed. If you approach this with a sense of curiosity, you may learn you have some amusing tendencies. Once you’ve identified decision-making patterns, you can more easily determine what stands in the way of choosing a more healthy path.

Create a disruption.

If you can’t find a way to make yourself believe a healthy decision is mandatory, you can at least change the process so that there’s a greater chance you’ll notice when you’re about to repeat an unhealthy decision.

For example:

  • Store unhealthy snacks in a location that’s locked or requires a ladder.
  • Put items containing gluten on the “never” list on your grocery delivery service if a gluten-free diet has been recommended.
  • Eat a healthy option before you eat one that’s not recommended. The slight delay as well as the satisfaction of having eaten something may be enough to dissuade you from reverting to your former choice.

Stick with it.

Once you’ve observed, recorded, and determined ways to motivate yourself or disrupt your habits, stick with it. Eventually, the new decision will become the more consistent default.

Now’s the time.

The new year is a great time to explore decision inertia!

(1) Erev I., Haruvy E. (in press). Learning the economics of small decisions, in The Handbook of Experimental Economics, Volume 2, eds Kagel J. H., Roth A. E. (Princeton: Princeton University Press; )

Leaky Gut

Is leaky gut a real thing? A few years ago, I went to a gluten-free conference that focused on adrenal fatigue and leaky gut as the cause of many symptoms. Today, I want to explore the theory of leaky gut.

There are some conditions and medications that increase intestinal permeability. This happens when the layer of cells that line the bowel (mucosal barrier) becomes less effective at preventing large molecules and germs from passing from the bowel into the bloodstream.

Many alternative medicine professionals have seized on this as the cause of food allergies, migraine, chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, MS, scleroderma, eczema, and autism. Whether or not there is a direct connection to these diseases, there may be some basis for concern about leaky gut.

An unhealthy gut lining that allows partially digested food, toxins, or bugs to pass through it can trigger inflammation and change the gut flora. There are many studies showing a relationship between altered intestinal bacteria and the development of some common chronic diseases.

This is of special concern to those who live with celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome which are known to be associated with increased intestinal permeability. Leaky gut may also pose a risk for those with HIV/Aids, cystic fibrosis, type 1 diabetes, or those receiving chemotherapy, radiotherapy to the abdomen, or immunosuppressants. Suffering from infections like salmonella, norovirus, and giardiasis can also make a patient more susceptible to any possible detrimental effects of leaky gut.

Summing this up, leaky gut exists in everyone to some degree, but may be more pronounced in those who take certain medications or have specific medical conditions. We are beginning to learn the extent to which this may have a deleterious effect or contribute to disease processes although some studies seem to indicate that intestinal permeability may lead to inflammation.

While the experts work out the exact risks of intestinal permeability, what can you do to mitigate the effect of inflammation that may result from leaky gut?

The easy answer is, change your habits to be more gut friendly. Eliminate things that could be inflammatory – alcohol, processed food, and any food to which you have an allergy or sensitivity. Avoid medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Eat a variety of nutritious, fresh food. Pay attention to the effect of foods high in fructose and limit them if they prove to be irritating. Drink plenty of water. Reduce stress as much as possible.

I know it’s infuriating to read that leaky gut exists but may or may not cause symptoms. It’s equally annoying to discover that the best way to combat leaky gut is to prevent or mitigate it with healthy habits.

And yet, that’s where we are. And it’s where we often end up with autoimmune disorders. The symptoms are wide-ranging. The disorders difficult to diagnose. Diagnostic tests, imprecise or unreliable. And even though a healthy diet can help, we’d all prefer a definitive miracle cure.

Perhaps instead of healthy diets, we should start encouraging scream therapy!

Can Dietary Changes Reduce Inflammation?

Can dietary changes reduce inflammation? I can’t help thinking about inflammation this morning. My left thumb is swollen and throbbing thanks to an ant that was eating the okra pod I reached in to harvest before I noticed it. (Yes, I have gloves and I know I should wear them.)

Inflammation is detrimental to health especially when it becomes chronic. What I’m experiencing at the moment is acute inflammation that should subside in a few days. But before I knew I should be gluten-free, I experienced chronic inflammation.

Research has shown chronic inflammation to be associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Not only is it a possible contributor to serious disease, chronic inflammation makes you feel bad.

For me, it developed slowly over a period of time. I knew I had inexplicable pain that kept me awake. More than likely, that was related to inflammation. It went away when I eliminated gluten from my diet. After a few weeks, I was acutely aware that I no longer felt “tight” in my skin. Once I realized how much lighter I felt, I never wanted to go backward.

But because my condition changed gradually over a period of years, I became desensitized to the overall changes in how I felt. I knew something was going on because I was weak and tired and I ached, but the acute symptom that kept me seeking answers was an itchy rash.

With chronic inflammation, your body is constantly responding as if it’s under attack. The immune system pumps out white blood cells and chemical messengers that are helpful for a time after an injury or illness like a virus, but if the process lingers, they become detrimental. Just typing that makes me feel tired. It seems obvious that constantly fighting itself would not result in optimum health.

Diet and exercise are key to managing chronic inflammation. For me, eliminating gluten was what it took to rid myself of chronic inflammation and eventually my itchy rash. Even now, after 17 years, it doesn’t take much accidental gluten ingestion to trigger another round of blistery itching. Maybe that’s a good thing. It certainly keeps me on the straight and narrow.

To reduce chronic inflammation, eliminating foods you recognize irritate your system is a good place to start. Anything that produces an allergic reaction, stomach discomfort, swelling, redness, or rash can go in the first round. Dairy, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish may fall in this category.

Next up, consider limiting consumption of processed foods. The chemicals in soft drinks, deli meat, baked goods, and preformed meals may trigger an undesired response from your body.

Beyond that, it may be helpful to eliminate sugary, starchy foods like white bread, pancakes, doughnuts, and pasta. This will help prevent blood sugar spikes. Keeping the body even keel allows it to use available energy to repair itself.

You may want to increase other foods like cherries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, plums, red grapes, onions, turmeric, green tea, spinach, and Swiss chard. Kale is a great option if you like it. All of these foods are high in polyphenols which are antioxidants that reduce inflammation.

Exercise plays a part in preventing conditions associated with chronic inflammation and research has shown it can directly reduce inflammation as well. Of course, movement will be more pleasant as inflammation lessens. I am intensely reminded of this when I try to move my thumb.

A change in diet can result in reducing or even eliminating chronic inflammation. Sitting here with a reminder of how inflamed tissues feel, I am grateful that it only took eliminating certain foods to bring me relief. That makes the dietary changes worth it!

Stop and Smell the Memories

Do you ever take a moment to stop and smell the memories? My tomato plants are covered in tomatoes so heavy they tipped the trellis over this morning. As I was setting them back up surrounded by the smell of the plants, I was reminded of gardening with my grandmother when I was small. There’s a strong connection between smell and memory. There’s a strong connection between memory and comfort. And there’s a strong connection between comfort and food.

Have you ever had a chance to stop and consider how smell and memory influence your food choices? Most of us don’t even have time to stop and smell the roses, much less the memories. But an awareness of our relationships to smell memory can be helpful with compliance when we need to follow a specific diet in order to be healthy.

A few years ago, a gluten-free bakery opened in my city. My response upon first visiting it was to feel disappointment that there was no yeasty smell in the air. For me, the joy of a bakery lies in the smells-yeast, coffee, cinnamon. The visuals are great too, but while I might be hesitant to eat an oddly shaped cut of meat or deformed looking vegetable, I’d never refuse a misshapen cookie or a torn piece of bread.

Much of the joy and comfort of cooking come from familiar aromas. The first time I cooked fresh green beans in my home, I remarked, “This is how this house should smell.” The house is over 100 years old. Somehow, the smell fit the hardwood floors, carved wood doors, transom windows, and 12-foot ceilings. And I knew it.

When smell is a reminder of family, comfort, and tradition, it can be especially compelling. That’s because smell goes directly to an olfactory bulb that’s connected to the amygdala where emotional processing occurs. All of those warm feelings can end up being connected to related smells.

The idea of giving up a certain food may trigger a feeling of loss or separation as if you’re giving up family or comfort. Knowing this up front can help inform your choices and give you enough insight to recognize and overcome emotional memory stumbling blocks.

And perhaps knowing this can help you process through a diagnosis of celiac disease, diabetes, IBS, or Crohn’s disease without feeling as though required dietary changes will be dire. You will quickly recognize that you can enjoy the warm memories associated with the scent of a cinnamon roll without actually eating one. This knowledge will increase your sense of power, confidence, and choice.

It may also mean you value your memories more because you take time to smell them.