Our food choices are influenced by a variety of factors. Knowing why we eat what we do can help nutritionists develop better strategies to help people adopt healthful eating practices.
Think about it for a moment. Have your eating habits changed over the years? Do you eat differently depending upon where you are or the people you're with? Do you sometimes have conflicts between what you want to eat, what you think you should eat, or what others tell you to eat?
You're not alone, says Division of Nutritional Sciences professor Carole Bisogni. Our food choices are influenced by a wide variety of cultural, social, psychological, and environmental forces. To get an idea of how people choose food, Bisogni, fellow nutritional sciences professor Jeffery Sobal, graduate student Laura Winter Falk, and research associates Tanis Furst and Margaret Connors recently interviewed adults living in Upstate New York. The study participants, who represented various ages, socioeconomic groups, and family structures, were asked about how they chose food when shopping or eating.
Bisogni says that there have been many studies of people's food choices over the years. Most are singular in perspective, taking a predominantly cultural, psychological, or sociological point of view. Previous studies also have limited their interest to the factors that the researchers identified as important prior to the data collection.
"We took a different approach," she says. "Through open-ended interviews, we talked to people about their food choices and learned about what they do and also why they do it. The interviews revealed a whole range of factors that appear to work together to influence food practices. Understanding these factors and how they work together can help nutrition professionals design better strategies to help people make dietary changes to promote health."
Bisogni and her colleagues used the results of their study to create a conceptual model of the food choice process. They then examined the model again through interviews with older adults conducted by Winter Falk.
The universal factor influencing the foods people choose appears to be the life course.
"All of us have a variety of personal experiences related to food as we go through life," Bisogni says. "We grow up in households with established patterns of shopping, cooking, and eating. We live through social trends, historical eras, and perhaps in different places. We meet other people who influence our lives, and we take on different roles and responsibilities. All these experiences shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions related to food."
Many people's expectations about foods are formed during childhood, Bisogni says. Favorite foods are "just what mother used to make" or "how it tasted when it came from grandpa's garden." Based on childhood, many older adults have strong feelings about eating what is served or not wasting food, even if those convictions conflict with what they prefer to eat or believe they should eat for health reasons.
Bisogni and her colleagues have observed that a person's life course is the source of five major influences on food choices - ideals, personal factors, resources, social framework, and food context. She says that ideals, one of the most important factors, include the expectations and beliefs that people have about food and eating.
"Some people have strong symbolic associations with food," she explains. "For example, one person in the study grew up poor and associated the foods he ate as a child with poverty. In adulthood, he wanted to eat foods that he equated with elevated social status and prosperity."
Other ideals include expectations about the right way to shop or what a meal should be. People also develop strong expectations about the way certain foods should be prepared. They may always want their potatoes served with sour cream and butter or their oatmeal cooked with milk.
Personal factors are also central to what people eat. They shape the boundaries of their food choices and include their particular likes and dislikes for flavors, textures, appearances, and odors. Personal factors also include any special needs an individual may have, for example from high levels of activity or from health conditions. "Food centeredness," the amount of interest a person has in cooking and eating, is another personal factor, as is a person's willingness to be an "adventure-seeking" eater and experiment with new foods.
"Even our mood plays a role," says Bisogni. "One woman who was attempting to maintain healthful eating habits said she was pretty faithful to her diet 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent she said, 'Who cares?' and ate what she wanted."
Resources also influence people's food choices, and when limited, they can constrain food choice options. Some resources are tangible, such as money available for food purchases, transportation to food stores, storage space, and cooking facilities. Other important resources are less tangible, such as time for shopping and cooking, food preparation skills, and knowledge about the nutritional value of foods. An unskilled cook may rely more on prepared foods, and people with limited time may rely on eating in restaurants or take-out foods.
Some of the respondents in the study had a spouse and children at home. For them, the influence of this social framework was enormous. In families, the task of shopping and coming home with foods that meet the desires and tastes of other family members usually falls to one or two people.
"Social framework also affects the ways meals are prepared and the foods that are served," says Bisogni. "Some people eat certain ways to avoid conflict and to accommodate others. Family food practices are closely tied with how parents manage their relationships with children. Some parents refuse to cook multiple meals to accommodate children's preferences, whereas other parents may cook several dishes at once to keep all the kids happy."
Health considerations are a growing motivation for changing food choices, and the special interests or needs of one person in a household often affect everyone else. All family members may adjust their food practices when one member is diagnosed with a diet-related disease such as heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes. The adoption of a low-fat or vegetarian diet by one family member may have a similar impact. In other households, however, the result may be several different meals being prepared or an individual feeling isolated from family food traditions.
The final major influence on food choice is the food context or environment in which the person chooses food. A person's choices are defined by what is available in the stores, eating establishments, and other places where eating events occur.
According to the conceptual model Bisogni and her colleagues developed, the life course and the five major influences on food choice lead to the development of a personal system for food choice. This system involves the negotiation of values to make choices in different situations. Taste, monetary considerations, physical well-being, convenience, managing relationships, and quality were the values most often mentioned by the study participants. They also noted that values are often in conflict.
In most situations taste is a predominant value. People tend to choose what they like and refuse to eat a food they dislike, even if the food has strong appeal in terms of its cost, convenience, or health value. In fact, some respondents reported accepting the discomfort of indigestion just to experience the taste of a dish that they really enjoyed.
Monetary considerations also come into play, yet a person's economic status may not be a good indicator of their importance when a person makes food choices. Some people buy "whatever's cheapest," regardless of their own economic fortunes. Others buy more widely but are intent on making sure the food is worth it's cost.
Managing relationships is an important value both for people who live with others and for people who live alone. Eating events provide opportunities to be with others, and seeking companionship or meeting with friends may be more important than the taste, health attributes, or cost of the food that is served.
"Most of us do not consciously reflect upon these values each time we eat or shop," says Bisogni. "Instead, we have rules and repertoires for making choices in situations that we repeatedly encounter. For example, we may pack a lunch to avoid costs, to assure that we include certain foods in our diet, or to save time during the day. Some study participants reported always ordering the same items in a restaurant or buying the same brand of a product because they knew the taste and price would meet their needs."
Bisogni and her colleagues believe that understanding people's personal systems for food choices is critical to enabling nutritionists to help clients and target audiences make dietary changes. Current projects are examining the food practices of adults in other locations of New York State and include study participants with diverse cultural backgrounds.
"Nutrition professionals previously just provided people with food plans and nutrition facts. We emphasized that knowledge, motivation, and will power were the keys to dietary change. Our research tells us, however, that understanding the motivations and personal systems for food choice is the real insight to helping people adopt new food practices."
Among those most motivated to make changes for health reasons are individuals with heart disease or those recovering from a heart attack. Even those highly motivated individuals, however, often find that in many eating situations health is in conflict with other values - taste, social relationships, convenience, resources, and quality - and that these values must be renegotiated.
Studies of dietary change among cardiac patients conducted by Bisogni with Bernadette Janas, a former graduate student, indicate that it takes both time and thai and error for cardiac patients to change their personal systems for eating. Some individuals try to remain strong and follow a rigid food plan. This behavior - called compliance - although certainly effective, is often difficult to follow over the long term because it fails to factor in the many eating situations people find themselves in.
The alternative to compliance is accommodation. Rather than completely denying themselves the foods they like, people recognize the importance of acknowledging their situation and adjust their eating habits accordingly. Accommodation strategies, however, must be carefully developed to assure that an individual can meet personal dietary goals.
Nutritionists have a wealth of expertise that, when coupled with an understanding of the values and personal systems for food choice, can help people make realistic and acceptable changes in their eating practices to meet their personal dietary objectives. When dietary advice considers ideals, resources, personal preferences, social relationships, and food context, the chances for promoting lasting changes increase.
For more information, contact Carole A. Bisogni Cornell University Division of Nutritional Sciences 334 MVR Hall Ithaca, NY 14853 607-255-2628 email@example.com
RELATED ARTICLE: Assessing Dietary Intake
Over the years, dietary assessment has become an increasingly important tool for preventing and treating disease, losing weight, and maintaining overall good health. Yet the sheer number of diet surveys carried out in the United States and in other countries has clearly demonstrated that it's an imperfect science, at best. There is no ideal method for collecting information on what people eat.
Division of Nutritional Sciences Professor Diva Sanjur has compiled her twenty years of experience conducting dietary assessments in a new book, Assessing Dietary Intake: Selected Issues in Data Collection and Analysis. Written with doctoral student Maria Rodriguez, the book examines both the capabilities and limitations of diet surveys, implications for training people who design and conduct surveys, and other related information.
People are becoming more aware of the value of nutritional analysis, especially for the treatment and prevention of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases," says Sanjur, who also is using the book to teach her own community nutrition students. "Our goal was to help nutritionists and dietary assessment practitioners improve their procedures for the collection and analysis of food intake information."
The 100-page book, which was released in September, has chapters on different methods of nutritional analysis, the preparation and adaptation of questionnaires and interviews, coding and analyzing data, measuring dietary change, and measuring food consumption among special populations like young children, the elderly, and recent immigrants.
It also contains sample questionnaire forms from a variety of nutrition programs, including one developed at Cornell and another used by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Cincinnatti. Sanjur says the forms can be modified to meet the specific needs of individual users.
Sanjur is using feedback from the book's initial users to make changes for a possible second printing. Copies of the book can be obtained by contracting her at 328 Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, or calling 607-255-2647.