The Illusion of Choice

In comments to my post on routine, Lori made a great point when she said:

“Routine really is important because it takes the choice out of things. When you constantly have to make choices to stay true to your plan, it becomes wearing and the slippery slope happens.”

I agree with that and I’ve been thinking about things like choice and freedom. There are basically two ways to lose weight through your eating plan. One type of plan basically restricts what you can eat. Examples of this would be low-fat diets (restrict fats) or low-carb diets (restrict carbs). The other type of plan basically restricts how much you eat, but allows you to theoretically eat anything. Weight Watchers Points Plus is an example of this type of diet. Another example would be classic calorie counting.

In reality, both types of plans end up with you eating fewer total calories. If you cut out or severely limit certain macronutrients or particular food groups, then you end up eating fewer calories overall. At the same time, while you can theoretically eat anything on Weight Watchers, to stay within your points you are limited in what you can eat. And, you soon find out that while you can eat cake or cookies or candy – you can’t really eat very much of it and still lose weight.

Some people like the plans where you don’t have to count and measure so much and just have clear rules of eat this and don’t eat that. Others like plans where you have freedom and there are no forbidden foods. I personally tend to prefer those types of plans. I do tend to eat more low end of moderate on carbs, but I don’t like to feel that there is any food that I can’t eat (I recognize that some people have allergies or reactions to certain foods and may indeed have foods that they can’t eat).

I have known many Weight Watchers members who have made the point that they like that Weight Watchers gives them to choice to eat any food. And, I like that well.

At the same time, I find that having to make too many choices, too often robs me of my freedom. Last summer, I started buying these store brand cookies at the grocery store. They were small and usually 5 of them were around 110 to 120 calories. So, I would have 5 and that was fine. I planned to do this 2 or 3 times a week. But, I soon found myself having a serving every day. Then, every time I walked by the pantry I would have to make a choice on whether to eat them or not.

Now, from a Weight Watchers standpoint, it was fine to eat them. I was recording my food and I could choose to eat them. So, I had that choice. But, really that choice was an illusion. It got to a point that every time I went by the pantry I would have to make that choice each time. Eventually I was having several servings in a day. And, over that summer I gained 10 pounds.

The point is that having those cookies right there forced me to make that choice every time I got near them. I could certainly choose not to eat them. And, maybe if I was a better me, I would have made that choice. But, in reality, this was for me a choice that didn’t give me freedom. I would “choose” to eat the cookies and then would feel awful that I ate them. I felt imprisoned by my choice.

I guess I could have then said I would never eat another cookie again. But, that also didn’t feel right to me. For me, knowing that I can have a cookie is important and I feel deprived if I have to say that I will never, ever eat a cookie.

What ended up working for me was to set up rules for my choices. First, I quit buying cookies for the house. Since then I haven’t bought cookies (that I would eat – sometimes I’ve bought oatmeal raisin for my son and that isn’t tempting since I don’t like them) except on a couple of special occasions. I don’t have to make a choice on eating cookies at home because I have no cookies at home. I do see them in the store, but when I see them I remind myself that the rule is not to buy cookies for the house except on rare, special occasions.

Outside of that, though, I do have some situations where I exercise choice to have a cookie. Sometimes, when we get Subway, I will have a cookie. Sometimes, if I am somewhere else and there are cookies offered, I will have a cookie or two (if they are small). The result is that over the last 9 months I’ve had cookies only a few times.

Paradoxically, by removing the situations where I think I have a choice on eating cookies, I’ve made it where I feel that I have much more freedom than when I had to make that choice several times a day. By setting rules for eating cookies, I’ve made it much easier for myself.


  1. says

    I follow something similar — I just walk past all the tempting foods in the supermarket and don’t even bring them home. Sometimes (like my recent post about chocolate), I really crave something but can’t indulge because it’s not in the house. Even though it may be annoying at the time, I’ve learnt that the feeling passes and I feel so much better afterwards. I hope one day I am able to control myself regardless of what is brought into the house.
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