Why do we eat what we eat: Food choice - a complex behaviour

Last Updated : 03 May 2004

Concern about food choices that may have adverse effects on health is currently at the forefront of public health. A greater understanding of the determinants that affect food choice is vital given the priority for population dietary change. Eating behaviour is complex and this article introduces the vast array of factors recognised as having an impact on food choice. Future articles will explore in more detail how biological factors affect food choice, will address the barriers to dietary change, and explain models of behavioural change.

Food choice, like any complex human behaviour, is influenced by many interrelated factors. The key driver for eating is of course hunger and satiety, but what we choose to eat is not determined solely by physiological or nutritional needs. Other factors that influence our food choice are:

  • the sensory properties of foods, such as taste, smell or appearance;
  • social, emotional and cognitive factors, such as likes and dislikes, knowledge and attitudes related to diet and health, habit or social context when eating condition our choice. Personal values, life experiences such as marital/co-habitation status, or skills (e.g. cooking), a person's beliefs (e.g. about issues like organic and GM), and perceptions, such as perceived barriers to eating a healthy diet, may be particularly important for certain individuals.
  • Cultural, religious and economic factors also constrain our choice. Education, ethnicity and availability, visibility or prices of products play a major role in our food choice.

This multitude of factors illustrates that “healthy eating”, which is the goal of public health campaigns, is only one of many considerations relevant to food choice.

Attitude to food & intent to change

The Pan-European Survey of Consumer Attitudes to Food, Nutrition and Health found that the top five influences on food choice in all European member states are ‘quality/freshness’ (74%), ‘price’ (43%), ‘taste’ (38%), ‘trying to eat healthy’ (32%) and ‘what my family wants to eat’ (29%). These are average figures obtained by grouping all European member states results, which differed significantly from country to country.

Females, older subjects, and more educated subjects considered health aspects to be particularly important. Males more frequently selected 'taste' and 'habit' as main determinants of their food choice. ‘Price’ seemed to be most important in unemployed and retired subjects.

In the same survey, 80% of respondents described healthy eating (defined as balance & variety) in a way that suggests dietary messages are having some impact. This is reflected in some improvements in dietary trends. However, understanding dietary information did not necessarily lead to action. There needs to be a will to actually change personal behaviour. Yet the perceived need among Europeans to alter eating habits is low, with 71% believing that their diets are already adequately healthy. This re-iterates that nutrition/healthy eating is not perceived to be highly relevant when choosing food.

Summary

What people eat is not only based upon individual preferences, but is constrained by circumstances that are essentially social and cultural. Different strategies are required to trigger a change in behaviour in groups with different priorities. This is a challenging position for health professionals.

References

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