Why Do We Choose The Food We Do?

Diets | February 3, 2018 | Author: Naturopath


Why Do We Choose The Food We Do?

Eating is among life’s most enjoyable experiences; but how many times have you sat at a restaurant and had trouble deciding what to order from the menu, or arrived home from work and could not make up your mind about what to cook for dinner, or navigated the supermarket aisles aimlessly not knowing what to buy?

If it sounds familiar, then you are by no means alone. Everyday we are faced with numerous food choices and have to make decisions on what to eat. Often, our choices are intuitive, affected by many factors, both consciously and unconsciously.

Factors influencing food choice:

Flavour. This may sound straightforward. We choose to eat food that tastes good. However, it is not just about the taste. According to Harvard Medical School, taste combines with smell, texture, and temperature to create flavour, a single sensory experience in the brain.

Factors influencing food choiceFrom an evolutionary perspective, we are born with a preference for sweet foods, which signifies energy (calories) for growth and survival, and we reject bitter tastes, to signal the presence of toxins and protect us from ingesting them. And yet, what causes one person to like the flavour of one food and another person to dislike the exact same food? Why do people have different food preferences?

Our food preferences start in the womb. Both taste and smell begin to develop before we are born, and continue after birth. It is partially genetic – twin studies show that we are genetically predisposed to prefer certain flavours, and partially dependent on what our mother eats. Flavours from the mother’s diet during pregnancy pass through to her foetus via amniotic fluid, and after birth through her breast milk, providing us with our early food experience. Indeed, formula-fed babies infants have a different food experience than breast-fed infants, which might affect their preferences when they start eating solids.

Past experience. As we grow up we accumulate new and different food experiences that shape our food preferences. Often we choose to eat foods that are linked to a positive experience or memory engraved in our brain, and we avoid foods that have elicited a negative experience in the past, even if we do not remember it. For instance, a one-time experience of nausea following eating a certain food can create an aversion for this food for years to come.

Factors influencing food choiceSocial influences. What our family and peers eat has a great influence on our food choices. We eat differently in the presence of ours than when we are alone, and as we do most of our eating in a social context, we tend to model others. The reason being that other people set a guide or a social norm for us. Children model the eating of both their parents and peers, and adults model other adults.

Familiarity. Many young children are reluctant to eat, or avoid eating, new foods. It may be an evolutionary mechanism that protects us from the risk of being poisoned by consuming potentially harmful unfamiliar foods. This behaviour can continue into adulthood in some cases. 

Culture. Cultural and religious practices and tradition can impact our food choices. For example, vegetarianism is widely practiced in Buddhism, and pork is avoided in Islam. Special celebrations involve specific food, such as Americans eating turkey for Thanksgiving, while in China dumplings are served for the Spring Festival.

Mood. Emotional state can influence food choice. In addition to overeating, people tend to reach for high fat, sweet, sugary “comfort foods” when feeling low, anxious or stressed.

Factors influencing food choiceHealth considerations. Many people choose foods that they perceive as being healthy for their general well being, for weight control, for specific health conditions, or because of food allergies or sensitivities.

Ethical concerns. Concerns about animal welfare and the environment influence food choice, such as becoming a vegetarian or vegan.
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Cost. An important factor influencing food choice is the cost of food, especially among individuals with low incomes. People may opt for processed or fast foods if they are less expensive than healthy fruits and vegetables. In general, health food is more expensive and is available more in cities than rural areas.

Convenience. Food shopping and meal preparation can be time consuming and requires access to food outlets. Your choice of food might be limited if you do not have shops that are close by, or if you have time constraints.

Factors influencing food choiceEnvironmental factors. Environmental factors, such as cutlery, plateware, food packaging and atmosphere have an effect on how we perceive flavour of food, and consequently affect our food choice.

For example, studies demonstrate that when a dessert is served on a white plate, it is perceived as tasting 10% sweeter, and more than 15% more flavourful, than when the exact same dessert served a black plate.

Similarly, the type of lighting, the colour of the tablecloth, background music, and the people we share our meal with with, can all impact on our perception of the flavour of our food.

The bottom line

Food choice is complex process that involves many factors. Understanding why you choose the food you do is not just interesting but can also help you improve your food choices towards a healthier diet.                                              

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Breslin, P.A.S., 2013. An evolutionary perspective on food and human taste. Current biology : CB, 23(9), pp.R409-18. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23660364

Harvard Medical School 2011. Controlling what - and how much - we eat - Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/controlling-what-and-how-much-we-eat

Harvard Medical School 2018. How stress can make us overeat - Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/how-stress-can-make-us-overeat

Higgs, S. & Thomas, J., 2016. Social influences on eating. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 9, pp.1–6. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S235215461500131X

Spence, C., 2013. Multisensory flavour perception. Current Biology, 23(9), pp.R365–R369. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982213000316?_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_origin=gateway&_docanchor=&md5=b8429449ccfc9c30159a5f9aeaa92ffb&dgcid=raven_sd_recommender_email

Vabø, M., 2014. The Relationship between Food Preferences and Food Choice: A Theoretical Discussion. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 5(7). Available at: https://ijbssnet.com/journals/Vol_5_No_7_June_2014/16.pdf

Ventura, A.K. & Worobey, J., 2013. Early Influences on the Development of Food Preferences. Current Biology, 23(9), pp.R401–R408. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S096098221300208X

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