People decide what to eat, when to eat, and even whether to eat in highly personal ways, often based on behavioral or social motives rather than on an awareness of nutrition’s importance to health. Many different food choices can support good health, and an understanding of nutrition helps you make sensible selections more often.
As you might expect, the number one reason people choose foods is taste—they like certain flavors. Two widely shared preferences are for the sweetness of sugar and the savoriness of salt. Liking high-fat foods also appears to be a universally common preference. Other preferences might be for the hot peppers common in Mexican cooking or the curry spices of Indian cuisine. Some research suggests that genetics may influence people’s food preferences.
People sometimes select foods out of habit. They eat cereal every morning, for example, simply because they have always eaten cereal for breakfast. Eating a familiar food and not having to make any decisions can be comforting.
Ethnic Heritage or Tradition
Among the strongest influences on food choices are ethnic heritage and tradition. People eat the foods they grew up eating. Every country, and in fact every region of a country, has its own typical foods and ways of combining them into meals. The “American diet” includes many ethnic foods from various countries, all adding variety to the diet. This is most evident when eating out: 60 percent of U.S. restaurants (excluding fast-food places) have an ethnic emphasis, most commonly Chinese, Italian, or Mexican.
Most people enjoy companionship while eating. It’s fun to go out with friends for pizza or ice cream. Meals are social events, and sharing food is part of hospitality. Social customs invite people to accept food or drink offered by a host or shared by a group.
Availability, Convenience, and Economy
People eat foods that are accessible, quick and easy to prepare, and within their financial means. Today’s consumers value convenience and are willing to spend more than half of their food budget on meals that require little, if any, further preparation.2 They frequently eat out, bring home ready-to-eat meals, or have food delivered. Even when they venture into the kitchen, they want to prepare a meal in 15 to 20 minutes, using less than a half dozen ingredients—and those “ingredients” are often semi prepared foods, such as canned soups. This emphasis on convenience limits food choices to the selections offered on menus and products designed for quick preparation. Whether decisions based on convenience meet a person’s nutrition needs depends on the choices made. Eating a banana or a candy bar may be equally convenient, but the fruit offers more vitamins and minerals and less sugar and fat.
Positive and Negative Associations
People tend to like particular foods associated with happy occasions—such as hot dogs at ball games or cake and ice cream at birthday parties. By the same token, people can develop aversions and dislike foods that they ate when they felt sick or that were forced on them.3 By using foods as rewards or punishments, parents may inadvertently teach their children to like and dislike certain foods.
Some people cannot eat when they are emotionally upset. Others may eat in response to a variety of emotional stimuli—for example, to relieve boredom or depression or to calm anxiety.4 A depressed person may choose to eat rather than to call a friend. A person who has returned home from an exciting
evening out may unwind with a late-night snack. These people may find emotional comfort, in part, because foods can influence the brain’s chemistry and the mind’s response. Carbohydrates and alcohol, for example, tend to calm, whereas proteins and caffeine are more likely to activate. Eating in response to emotions can easily lead to overeating and obesity, but it may be appropriate at times. For example, sharing food at times of bereavement serves both the giver’s need to provide comfort and the receiver’s need to be cared for and to interact with others, as well as to take nourishment.
Food choices may reflect people’s religious beliefs, political views, or environmental concerns. For example, many Christians forgo meat during Lent (the period prior to Easter), Jewish law includes an extensive set of dietary rules that govern the use of foods derived from animals, and Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar). A concerned consumer may boycott fruit picked by migrant workers who have been exploited. People may buy vegetables from local farmers to save the fuel and environmental costs of foods shipped in from far away. They may also select foods packaged in containers that can be reused or recycled. Some consumers accept or reject foods that have been irradiated or genetically modified, depending on their approval of these processes. Body Weight and Image Sometimes people select certain foods and supplements that they believe will improve their physical appearance and avoid those they believe might be detrimental. Such decisions can be beneficial when based on sound nutrition and fitness knowledge, but decisions based on fads or carried to extremes undermine good health, as pointed out in later discussions of eating disorders
Nutrition and Health Benefits
Finally, of course, many consumers make food choices that will benefit health. Food manufacturers and restaurant chefs have responded to scientific findings linking health with nutrition by offering an abundant selection of health-promoting foods and beverages. Foods that provide health benefits beyond their nutrient contributions are called functional foods. Whole foods—as natural and familiar as oatmeal or tomatoes—are the simplest functional foods. In other cases, foods have been modified to provide health benefits, perhaps by lowering the fat contents. In still other cases, manufacturers have fortified foods by adding nutrients or phytochemicals that provide health benefits Examples of these functional foods include orange juice fortified with calcium to help build strong bones and margarine made with a plant sterol that lowers blood cholesterol. Consumers typically welcome new foods into their diets, provided that these foods are reasonably priced, clearly labeled, easy to find in the grocery store, and convenient to prepare. These foods must also taste good—as good as the traditional choices. Of course, a person need not eat any of these “special” foods to enjoy a healthy diet; many “regular” foods provide numerous health benefits as well. In fact, “regular” foods such as whole grains; vegetables and legumes; fruits; meats, fish, and poultry; and milk products are among the healthiest choices a person can make.