Why We Eat the Foods We Do
Understanding what drives your food decisions can help you make healthier choices
by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH (www.webmd.com)
We live in a world of plenty, with more than enough food to choose from. Wander down any grocery store aisle and marvel at the options in every category. But what influences which foods we decide to buy and eat? It is not as simple as you might think.
We choose foods for many reasons besides hunger. (If eating was as simple as putting gas in a car, we’d have no obesity epidemic in the United States!) Personal taste, family preferences, cultural influences, emotional reasons, health concerns, societal pressures, convenience, cost, and variety and quantity of the available offerings all come into play when we choose what to eat.
The United States enjoys one of the most plentiful food supplies in the world. But with abundance comes overeating and, ultimately, the dreaded weight gain and related health problems. While surveys report that we are more interested in diet and health than ever before, the numbers of overweight and obese Americans tell a different story.
If you learn more about what influences your choices, you may be better able to control what you eat each day. Here are seven of the main factors at work in our food decisions:
1. Taste Rules
The main reason we choose a particular food is because we like the way it tastes. We don’t eat blueberries because they are an excellent source of antioxidants -- we eat them because they taste good.
Taste preferences are present when we are born, with even babies showing a fondness for sweetness and fats. Over time, we develop a palate for other flavors. Some studies have suggested that children who are exposed to a wide variety of foods early in life are more likely to enjoy a greater variety of flavors as adults.
But it is possible to teach yourself to love the taste of healthier foods as an adult. Learning to enjoy "the taste of eating right” takes time and perseverance. It also helps to know easy, healthy cooking techniques.
2. Favorite Foods
Ask most any expert about the secret to weight loss, and you’ll hear that it’s essential to keep favorite foods as part of a healthy diet. Let’s face it; we all grew up with fond memories of foods that bring us joy.
I remember going with my extended family each summer to Ocean City, N.J., where we watched in awe -- and tasted with delight -- the Copper Kettle fudge. To this day, a taste of fudge brings me back to childhood bliss. How could I possibly give up fudge? I don’t. I eat it infrequently, but the very thought that it would be stricken from my acceptable food list is heresy.
It is human nature: As soon as you attach denial to a particular food, it becomes an obsession. And it does not take a rocket scientist to know that being obsessed with food is no good for weight loss.
No one wants to give up their favorite foods and at the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic, we embrace that concept. We know you need your favorite foods; it is your job to be responsible in terms of how often and how much you eat them (unless these favorites happen to be low-calorie fruits and vegetables).
3. Eating With Your Eyes
It is not uncommon to be disconnected to your hunger center, and to instead ""eat with your eyes."" Sometimes, wanting to eat something is all about how yummy it looks.
Why do you think they push around dessert carts? Most people are full after dinner, but one look at the decadent desserts and they give in -- and it has nothing to do with hunger or fullness.
4. Cost and Convenience
Cost and convenience also weigh heavily in our food choices. Time-saving food choices are a major factor for anyone with limited time for shopping and cooking. But expenses can add up quickly when you rely on restaurant, takeout, and convenience foods.
The good news is that you can stretch your food dollars even when you're crunched for time. Quick-serve restaurants abound; you can always find a nutritious soup, salad, or grilled chicken sandwich that won't sabotage your diet.
You can also pick up convenience foods at any grocery store that allow you to whip up something "halfway homemade" and have a meal on the table in less than 30 minutes.
5. Personality Type
Each of us is different, and how we approach change varies with our personality types. Some WLC members prefer the flexibility to move foods around to accommodate hunger and changing schedules. Others want a specific detailed list of foods to eat and avoid. Some people simply need to stay the course exactly; left with too many decisions, they overeat.
Knowing your "diet personality" will offer insight into why you make some of your food choices. Ultimately, you decide which approach works best to help you control the type and quantity of food you consume.
6. Too Many Choices!
My mantra is "never go to buffet restaurants." No matter how hard I try, I end up wanting to sample "just a bite" of virtually everything on the buffet. I end up eating way too many calories, when quite frankly, I would have been just as satisfied with a soup and salad.
Studies suggest that the greater the variety of food offered, the more we tend to eat. Add more choices, and consumption increases by an average of 25%. In contrast, monotonous meals don't usually lead to overeating.
Maybe it is just a matter of curiosity. Keep the variety of foods at any particular meal to a minimum, and it may help you resist the temptation to overeat.
7. Social Settings
Typically, we eat more when we eat meals away from home and in the company of others. Some studies suggest that the size of the meal we consume increases with the number of people at the table.
Likewise, when you dine with health-conscious friends and family, you are influenced to eat more nutritiously. Do yourself a favor, and, whenever you can, surround yourself with people who value healthy cuisine.
The Bottom Line
Making food choices is a complex behavior, influenced by many factors. Yet to be successful at weight control, it's important to deal with food and fitness on a rational level. So, take a step back, analyze your decision-making process, and see what traits you can identify to help you make healthy and satisfying food choices.
The more you understand what makes you tick, the easier it will be to manage your food intake and daily activity. It just may be the missing piece of the puzzle that will make this your banner weight loss year.