You are what you eat, yet what you eat can be influenced by many factors.
When attempting reduce added and free sugar intake, and eat well overall, it is useful to be aware of what may be driving your food or drink selection. The reality is, there are many of forces at play!
Here are some factors to consider, adapted from this review, falling under the categories of food-related features; individual differences; and society-related features.
These desires include sensory and perceptual features, driven by the food itself, such as familiar smells that draw you into a store of a well-known junk food chain or the taste, mouthfeel, or feeling of satisfaction after eating.
- Sensory features: flavor, taste, smell, and texture
- Perceptual features: color, portion size, nutrition and health value, and quality
Environments we live in and move through are opportunities to be exposed to external factors that influence food choice.
This can include information about a product or a brand; the social environment; and the physical environment. For example, advertising or sponsorship of food and beverages at sports events or sports teams will influence those who watch the sport or follow the team.
- Information: nutritional labels, health claims, packaging, aesthetics, ethics of production history, brand, and advertisements
- Social environment: intrapersonal factors and social norms from family, peers, and media including ethical concern, and social context when food choice is made
- Physical environment: availability and accessibility of food products, food retail environments, and time
Personal influences are unique to the individual. What predominates at any given time can vary, depending on biological, physiological, and psychological factors, such as genetics, hunger, and habits.
A great example is snacking late at night. Regularly grazing on something sweet or salty while watching television becomes an associative habit. Additionally, later in the day as we tire, cognitive control over what goes into the mouth wanes. We may not be hungry, but we have an appetite for munching on something before bed.
Health conditions, such as coeliac disease, resulting in individuals strictly avoiding gluten-containing and cross-contaminated foods is another example, as is emotional eating.*
- Biological features: genetic factors, personal dietary patterns, metabolism, and a physical condition such as health
- Physiological needs: hunger, appetite, and weight status
- Psychological components: emotion, motivation, and personality
- Habits and experiences
Awareness goes a long way in decision-making around food, which brings us to the cognitive factors that influence food choice.
We advocate for food and nutrition education at That Sugar Movement, as with knowledge, a certain attitude and an understanding of health consequences, individuals can make informed food choices.
Interestingly, the researchers noted that nutrition knowledge is a mediator in the socio-demographic variations for food choice, especially for fruit and vegetable intake.
Identity and values can also be closely entwined with what we eat, such as thinking something is ‘healthy’, eating more vegetables than the average person, or upholding family traditions.
- Knowledge and skills
- Attitude, liking, and preference
- Anticipated consequences
- Personal identity: demographic features such as age, gender, ethnic identity, and education, and personal value and belief
Finally, incredibly important factors for food choice are those at a societal level, encompassing culture, economic variables, and political elements. Think cultural norms, such as sugary cereal for breakfast; socioeconomic status and income; as well as food policy that influences food price and the right to access healthful food.
- Culture: norms and values
- Economic variables: income, socioeconomic status, and price
- Political elements: agricultural and food policy and regulations
What is influencing your food choice?
There are many factors at play that influence what we eat and drink, and these can support or impede our efforts to choose well, eat healthily, or reduce added and free sugar intake.
In our modern society, when we are time-poor, saturated with easily accessed cheap and hyper-palatable foods, and pushed about from one dietary ideology to another, it can seem quite hard to actively eat well and maintain it. But it is possible.
If you can identify even a few of the factors driving your food choice, you can assess if that influence is beneficial to your health or not. If not, consider finding a better or more suitable alternative.
Finally, if you make a choice to eat something not so great, there is no need to stress. Enjoy it for what it is, and aim to have something nourishing at your next meal.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut Med.)
*Check out this article from Cleveland Clinic for signs of causes of emotional eating. If you have concerns about your relationship with food, please reach out to a healthcare professional for support. Organisations such as Food Addicts, SMART Recovery, and The Butterfly Foundation can provide help specific to food addiction and eating disorders.