One would think that having more options would help with the anxiety of decision-making because, ultimately, more choices means an increased likelihood of finding the right fit. For instance, Amazon has almost every book title you can think of, meaning you’re bound to find something you enjoy and could be interested in reading. But the opposite phenomenon can also be observed: sometimes, the more options you have, the harder it is to choose.

“Analysis paralysis” is the name that has been given to describe this paradox because, as the name suggests, with more options comes a more thorough analysis of the possibilities. It is the overwhelming sensation that results from overanalyzing decisions in an attempt to make the correct choice. In turn, individuals become intimidated by the apparent weight of their decisions, which leads to a lack of assertiveness and confidence. 

Grocery shopping is one such activity that has become increasingly harder simply because we’re inundated with dietary tips and suggestions everywhere we look. One week, we might hear that eating carbs might be the root of all our problems; the next, we could see that portobello mushrooms are toxic and will give you cancer. This is anxiety-inducing because we want to feel like we’re making the right choices for ourselves. Overall, even if our dietary preferences differ, many of us want to feel that what we’re buying at the grocery store won't end up shortening our lifespan. 

Of course, most of us give way to indulgences here and there because that’s also what life is about. Added sugars are known to be detrimental to our health, but cutting out chocolate or ice cream entirely is counterproductive if we feel like we can’t enjoy the little things in life. This adds to the analysis paralysis dilemma: Where is that sweet, sweet spot called balance? How much is too much? 

On top of the default pressure we feel to make the “correct” decision, the media is now filled with scandalous titles that claim to know what the “wrong” and “right” foods are. When added together, they make it seem like no food is safe from the relentless judgment of scientists, fitness influencers, politicians or just the average consumer.

In addition, it’s not just entire food groups that are privy to this severe assessment; it is brands, too. Some five decades ago, buying milk meant choosing from two or three different dairy companies, and purchasing laundry detergent meant grabbing whatever was available on the shelves. Now, we get to choose every tiny detail of the products we want to buy, whether we’re supporting local businesses or enormous corporations, biodegradable containers, or refillable bottles. 

Even with limited knowledge of the economics and politics of the food industry, we may be inclined to support the companies that claim to have ethically sourced products or environmentally friendly processes. However, this introduces the next dilemma that many of us have become painfully aware of: there is little to no ethical consumption under capitalism. 

Yet, why do we feel this overwhelming responsibility to consume consciously if the individual choices we make are only based on the available, disappointing reality of the food industry? 

It’s not just whether this one food group is bad for us. What about the environmental and social impact of its production? The meat industry is famously terrible for the planet, contributing to tons of carbon emissions yearly, the poor living conditions of livestock, and the outrageous amounts of hormones and antibiotics that the animals are given to withstand those living standards.

But instead of changing the corrupt practices behind this multi-billion dollar business, we are fed their “greenwashing” strategies, convincing us that buying grass-fed, free-range, organic products gets us one step closer to saving the planet. 

The issue with these so-called miraculous products is that they appeal to the guilt of individual consumption. This means that when given the option to buy a more expensive “ethical” product over an “unethical” but affordable option, it creates the illusion that we can solve the climate crisis or animal cruelty dilemma. In reality, this practice just incentivizes us to give more money to these same corporations by offering the same product with a different label. 

Not to discredit organic agriculture or more responsible farming practices, but claiming that something is “free-range” does not mean that animals are free to roam in a safe, green haven. This label is a technicality that theoretically allows animals to roam outside for short periods of time. In many of these cases, the reality is that they are still stuck in extremely crowded sheds. For example, free-range chicken enclosures in the United Kingdom “can contain up to nine birds per square meter.” So when it comes to buying these ethical options, it just means you’re paying extra for a temporary peace of mind that is built on a lie. 

Although only some people invested in reading the environmental commitments that each company has toward a greener future, many folks have become more critical of the things we put in our shopping carts. Whether we actively seek outside opinions or not, we are constantly exposed to different perspectives of what we “should be” eating. Whether it’s a new dietary trend like the ketogenic diet or the demonization of all things sugar, we begin to internalize all these different narratives, whether we agree with them or not. 

Some people might outwardly reject certain eating habits like veganism, but feeling like you have to defend the fact that you eat meat means that something about its principles might have stuck with you. Similarly, telling yourself that you deserve a sugar treat every now and then doesn’t necessarily prevent the guilt of eating something unhealthy. The information we consume about our consumption patterns ends up defining our experiences even if we disagree with them or try to rationalize them. 

Ultimately, the choices we have to make every week at the grocery store can plague us with existential dread. Moreover, having access to a lot of information is not necessarily for the best. Googling “Are avocados unhealthy?” will provide various pages alluding to some negative property that makes them unhealthy. On the other hand, you could Google “Are avocados healthy?” and find thousands of other articles listing the numerous benefits that avocados have. This leads to confirmation bias — a cognitive inclination to search for the things that we already believe or fear. In other words, we actively look for specific answers to specific questions that often fail to portray the big picture. 

The internet facilitates confirmation bias which leads us to form inaccurate ideas of the world.

This is particularly dangerous when it affects the decisions that determine the way we eat. Our physical and mental health is intertwined with our diet, and not feeling secure about the dietary decisions we make can be overwhelming. The truth is that many of the dietary trends that get attention are scientifically unfounded and are marketing schemes to promote paid eating regimens or fancy supplements.

It is important to consume information critically and rhetorically. In other words, we have to question whether the person or company communicating that information stands to gain anything from you changing your beliefs. In addition, if something sounds too good to be true it very well might be. 

The solution to this problem may be to trust our guts, common knowledge, and what has worked for us in the past. Filtering the vast amount of information on what we should be eating to be healthy, environmentally conscious, and within our budget is likely to burn us out over time. I think the key is to be skeptical of overclaims and to acknowledge that simple is almost always best. 

Back in the day, family recipes were passed down through generations and food was a way of connecting with relatives and friends, even those who were no longer around. Perhaps we should go back to relying on our traditions, our cultural backgrounds, and the unexpected discoveries we pick up on the way. Eating traditional foods helps us foster a connection to our community, our land and the ways of life of our ancestors, even when far from home. 

Grocery stores like Superstore have aisles dedicated to international food items — which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that approximately 20 per cent of the Canadian population are immigrants. However, finding fresh, high-quality goods is sometimes inaccessible or unaffordable. Because of the cultural and emotional importance of consuming culturally satisfying foods, the accessibility of these goods should be prioritized as a means of promoting diversity in food security. Whilst different policy measures are taken to promote these initiatives, looking for foods that resemble your own family meals or customs is a good way of pursuing balance in your nutrition.

Additionally, instead of overthinking every time we set food in a grocery store, it is important to make informed decisions about the kind of consumption patterns that we want to partake in whilst still honouring what we know makes us feel best. Finding this so-called balance should prioritize our health so long as it doesn’t become an obsession to eat only the “cleanest” (such as low sugar and low fat) and most nutritious foods always. 

Similarly, thinking about the social and environmental impacts of the foods we purchase should not be an individual burden to carry. It is important to demand better production processes and more transparency when it comes to the way they advertise their products. However, limiting our options to only those that are ethically sourced or carbon neutral — although a noble pursuit — will likely just add to the stress. Instead, we should find ways of helping in ways that don’t compromise our ability to fulfill our needs. Going vegan and boycotting companies that don’t align with your values are both great ways of doing that, so long as they don’t interfere with your physical and mental health. 

Yes, we live in a fast and chaotic world, which means it is more important than ever to find the balance between having convictions but also understanding that there is only so much you can do as an individual within a greater capitalistic and consumerist structure. 

Having so many options can be paralyzing, but it is also a blessing if you learn how to navigate the unruliness of the times.