What to Eat Before Making a Big Decision

About to make a big decision on an empty stomach? You may want to delay the choice until you fire up your brain with some food.

Taking a trip to the grocery store on an empty stomach is a risky business, as anyone who ever went to the market with a grumbling tummy and came out with a cart full of chips and cookies can attest. Ever wonder how your brain works when making decisions bigger than medium versus spicy salsa, like buying a car or accepting a job offer? Researchers from the University of Dundee in Scotland conducted a study that illuminates why you may want to have a small bite before making that big decision.

You will settle for less if you are hungry

Benjamin Vincent from the University of Dundee’s Psychology department and his co-author Jordan Skyrnka tested 50 people two times: once when they followed their normal eating patterns and once when they did not eat anything during the day. Using three different types of rewards (food, money, and song downloads), the team discovered that when people were hungry they would choose a smaller reward immediately rather than a larger bounty in the future. In fact, the team noted that when presented with the option of receiving the reward now versus double the award at some point in the future, participants would usually volunteer to wait for 35 days to earn a double bonus, but when they were hungry, they said they would only wait three days.

Hunger impacts the way your brain works

“We wanted to know whether being in a state of hunger had a specific effect on how you make decisions only relating to food or if it had broader effects, and this research suggests decision-making gets more present-focused when people are hungry,” Vincent said in a story about the study on the university’s website. “You would predict that hunger would impact people’s preferences relating to food, but it is not yet clear why people get more present-focused for completely unrelated rewards…Hunger is so common that it is important to understand the non-obvious ways in which our preferences and decisions may be affected by it,” he said.

Choose food that fuels your brain

In an earlier study of the subject by a team at Cambridge University in England, the researchers noted that serotonin plays a major role in the decision-making process. “Since the raw material for making serotonin—an amino acid called tryptophan—only comes from diet, levels of the chemical decline between meals,” reports a piece in the Telegraph about the study. “This can lead to aggressiveness and impulsiveness, say the team. Some foods are particularly rich in the amino acid, notably chicken soup and chocolate. Red meat, dairy products, nuts, seeds, bananas, tuna, shellfish, and soy products are also good sources.” Next, learn about 10 split-second decisions that helped change history.

Stacey Marcus
Stacey Marcus is a lifestyle writer and regular contributor to RD.com, where she covers subjects ranging from zodiac insight and penguin secrets to trivia and trends. She earned a BA in Communications from Simmons University. When not pitching story ideas and cherry-picking words, she can be found capturing sweet moments with her fluffy dog and office mate, Theo.