Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Diet Choice and the Role of Time Preference

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Diet Choice and the Role of Time Preference

Article excerpt

Economic theory related to time preference and health may be useful as a means of understanding the predictors of diet choice. The willingness to subvert present for future utility is hypothesized to influence the process of sacrificing time, flavor, convenience, and price in order to choose a healthful diet. Empirical results confirm the unique importance of variables related to rate of future discounting versus variables associated with market or cultural factors.


Aggregate food consumption data provide little evidence that Americans moved toward a healthier diet during the 1 990s despite implementation of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act and public nutrition education efforts (Putnam and Allshouse 2001). That consumers did not meet year 2000 public nutrition objectives (Public Health Service 1991) despite improvements in information warrants a more thorough exploration of the reasons consumers consider and value nutrition. Recent refinement of health economic theory offers promise to the field of public nutrition by providing a framework to better understand the role time preference plays in the decision to engage in health-related behavior.

There have been a number of recent analyses of the factors contributing to healthy diet choice (Nayga 1998; Nayga, Tepper, and Rosenzweig 1999; Kant and Graubard 1999: Kennedy, Bowman, Lino, Gerrior, and Basiotis 2000; Kristal, Hedderson, Patterson, and Neuhauser 2001). Models of healthy diet choice have generally Jacked a theoretical model to guide the selection of explanatory factors that take into account the motivation to value nutrition. Some have drawn from sociologically based theory to model diet choice as a function of attitudes toward foods and health, cultural influences, and sensory perceptions (Furst, Connors, Biscogni, Sobal, and Winter Falk 1996; Reynolds, Hinton, Shewchuck, and Hickey 1999). Unfortunately, attitude theory does not provide insight into formation of these positive inclinations toward healthy eating. Economic analyses of diet choice often focus on the influence of monetary resources, while recognizing the impact of demographics and nutrition awareness upon preferences (Nayga et a l. 1999).

That there are costs (both time and money) involved in understanding the parameters of a healthy diet and then choosing foods in line with those parameters is indisputable. Consumers often pay more in both dollar cost and preparation time to eat a healthful diet, and there is often a tradeoff in flavor (Blaylock, Smallwood, Kassel, Variyam, and Aldrich 1999). Given the nature of tradeoffs involved in healthy diet choice, the role of economics, and in particular economic theory that recognizes the role of time and human capital, is perhaps underestimated (Popkin and Haines 1981).

There is increasing evidence that time preference plays an important role as a predictor of health behavior (Fuchs 1982, Chapman and Elstein 1995, Komlos, Smith, and Bogin 2001). The possible contribution of time preference to nutrition is suggested in Blaylock et al. (1999). In the model developed for this paper, health, like money, is viewed as having stock and flow characteristics. Health is a stock of capital (part of one's human capital) which provides inputs (service flows) into commodities which are consumed for utility in the present and saved, or invested, for future consumption. There is thus a production aspect in that health is produced for both current and future consumption, as well as an investment aspect, where stock of health is accumulated to provide service flows in future periods. Just as income is used to afford utility in both the present (current consumption) and future (investment), health flows can also be used to afford utility in both the present (service flows into current commodit y production activities) and future (investment in health stock).

Diet is one of many activities that impact the health production process. …

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