Bonnie Modugno, MS, RDHealth Blog - Nutrition

The Tyranny of Choice

Published on 2010-11-15 by Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD

November 15, 2010

I tend to celebrate the range of food choices in my community and forget that having choices is not always a blessing. Making choices requires that you have enough information, time and energy to make decisions. It is easy to forget that sometimes all that effort can feel overwhelming.

I recently was speaking to a group of young teenage mothers. I was ready to initiate a discussion on making better choices when one of the young women raised her hand. She sighed and then spoke. Her message was clear. She was tapped out between school, raising a child, homework, working on the weekends and all the trappings of managing a household in the adult world.

At the end of her story, she stated her truth. She doesn’t want so many choices. It is easier just to eat what is put in front of her.


It is tempting to dismiss this young mother’s diatribe as pitching an adolescent fit, but many adults are equally overwhelmed in the marketplace. I work with clients who refuse to enter a big box store or even the local supermarket chain stores. In 2009 the average number of items in a supermarket totaled 48, 500. That’s a lot of choices.

These clients find themselves far less overwhelmed at local neighborhood markets and specialty stores. Smaller chains like Trader Joe’s and Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Markets are popular options.


Smaller stores offer a limited mix of items. There aren’t dozens of choices of each item, but that seems to be ok. The customers seem pretty satisfied with the choices they do have.

Stores can limit the kinds of products they offer. On Trader Joe’s website they proudly claim that they only sell quality products with natural ingredients:

NO artificial flavors, colors or preservatives
•NO genetically modified ingredients
•NO added Trans Fats

Fresh and Easy boasts neighborhood markets that focus on the consumer. A video on their website summarizes the Fresh and Easy mission: shopping that is simpler, fresher, and allows one’s budget to go further.

Fresh and Easy markets also tout an emphasis on quality. Each food department identifies limited food ingredients or food preparation practices. Efforts include bakery items without added trans fat, artificial colors or flavors; milk products from cows who have not been given rBST hormones, and responsibly sourced fish as well as pork grown without hormones.


Americans like value, and often value means getting as much as possible for the lowest price. While McDonald’s discontinued “Super-sizing” years ago, the legacy of super sizing lives on. “Too many choices” refers to the quantity of items as well as the number of items.

Big box stores are huge perpetrators of more is better. Why buy 6 ice cream cones at $4.99 when you can buy 36 and save a few bucks?

My answer is simple. It’s probably better for most people to buy less. Too many people buy 36 and think eating six is not so bad. Looking at 30 still in the box triggers no more than a shrug. Having so many left over feels different than eating six and polishing off the entire box.

In the world of bigger is better we have created a distortion of how much is enough. No wonder Americans are shocked at 8 oz. glasses of soda and other beverages when they travel abroad. At too many stores and fast food establishments a medium serving is 32 ounces. At sit down restaurants the servings may be only 16-24 ounces, but possibly more of a problem with limitless refills.


My son often struggles with quantity. He likes big. He eats with his eyes, and more always seems to taste more delicious. He has historically struggled with, “How much is enough?”

As he navigates these early teen years, the struggle has intensified. Other kids eat more snack foods and empty calories in a day than Noah can manage in a month, and he is the one with an elevated BMI. Just last week he cried out, “Why do they serve extra large in the first place?”

There are probably many reasons, none of them considering the current health and nutrition challenges of the day. At one of Noah’s favorite take out places, he used to sneak away and treat himself with an extra large shake for $7. At 38 calories an ounce, the 32 ounce serving provides about 1200 calories.

The company proudly advertises only 1 gram of fat per ounce (about 288 calories). My guess is that there is a very modest amount of protein. Sugar– both the natural sugar found in milk and a significant amount of added sugar– makes up the rest of the calories.

Why do restaurants serve 1200 calorie shakes? Why are there 1400 calorie burgers? Why do restaurants offer 3000 calorie entrees?

Ironically, many of the highest calorie items are served at sit down restaurants, not just the fast food eateries that get most of the grief from public health authorities. Why do restaurants do this when health authorities consider escalating obesity and diabetes rates an epidemic?

Maybe more of us need to start asking hard questions. Maybe it’s time to grow up and realize that more is not better. Sometimes less is more.

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