Diet Defaults: Is Your First Food Choice Your Best?

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Your “diet defaults” are those food choices you often make mindlessly. If most of your defaults are unhealthy, they could be wrecking your diet.

When it comes to making food choices, a lot of times we’re simply on autopilot. We have what I call our diet defaults, those automatic choices we find ourselves making without really considering the alternatives. Depending on whether they are healthy choices or unhealthy ones, your diet defaults can make or break your diet.

Maybe you haven’t given much thought to dietary defaults, but the concept of a default is probably familiar to you. When you use a computer program—for example, the word processing program I’m using to type this—there are automatic defaults built in. In my case, the margins on the page are preset, and the program is set to always use a particular font. These are the defaults, and unless I change them, the margins and the font will always stay the same.

Food choices: Are your first choices your best choices?

Maybe you’ve never thought about defaults in your food choices, but the same concept applies here. Your diet defaults are those choices that are preset. They’re the choices you always make and will continue to make unless you change them. And they’re probably all around you.

Here’s what happens to me sometimes. My default breakfast at home is usually a protein shake, or sometimes a dish of plain yogurt and some fruit. But when I’m out for breakfast (which usually only happens when I’m traveling), I might switch to my third default—an egg white omelet with some sliced tomatoes and a side of fresh fruit. But when the server gets to the table, it’s like playing 20 questions and I have to deal with all of the restaurant’s defaults. “Start you out with some orange juice?” “Room for cream?” “Ham, bacon or sausage?” “Hash browns or home fries?” “White, rye or sourdough?”

If I caved into all of the restaurant’s defaults, I’d end up with a glass of orange juice instead of fresh fruit, room in my coffee for cream that I don’t use, a side of fatty meat and starchy potatoes that I don’t want, and toasted bread that’s had melted butter applied with a paintbrush. Since I have my default choices established before I order, it makes it easier to say no—and to get what I want.

We’re making food choices all day long

What makes this all the more challenging, though, is that we’re not even aware that we’re thinking about food as much as we do. It’s been estimated that we make over 200 food-related decisions every single day. We’re constantly, but often mindlessly, evaluating if we’re going to eat something (or not), how much we’re going to have, as well as when, where, and with whom we’re going to eat it. But much of this decision-making is going on behind the scenes, which means that your mindless, default food choices play a big role when it comes to eating well and maintaining a healthy weight.

When you stop by your local coffee store for your morning brew, the default milk in your coffee drink is probably whole milk. Unless you specifically request low-fat milk (making that your default), you’ll be getting whole milk every time. If you’re out for lunch and order a burger or a sandwich, there’s a good chance your default side dish is fries. If I say guacamole or salsa, you probably think chips as your default dippers.

But what if you changed your defaults, so that your first choice became a healthier one? If a salad with low-fat dressing became your side dish default instead of fries, you’d ditch about 400 calories and you’ll boost your fiber intake, too. If you make low-fat milk your daily default at the coffee house, you could save hundreds of calories a week. And if you make baby carrots your default dipper for your guacamole instead of fried chips, you could save a bundle of calories. A single chip can have three times the calories of a baby carrot.

Establishing these healthy defaults just might be one of your best defenses against making the wrong choices mindlessly. Take a moment to think about it. If your first choices aren’t your best choices, maybe it’s time to give your diet defaults a “do-over.”

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