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How People Make Informed Decisions about Their Food Choice

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Introduction

Many factors determine the food choices we make. Our food preferences depend on many factors such as personal, sociological or economical. The choice we make can be influenced by ethnicity, religion, age, society, family and gender. To wide extend, the food we make consume shows who we are. Psychological factors and mass media also determine one’s eating habits. Dietary behaviour may vary depending on various occasions like parties, weddings, picnics, sports and other festivities. Some may resort to particular kind of food when they are stressed or want to express affection to their friends. Similar dietary behaviour is common for representatives of the same social class e.g. middle class. For this reason, what we eat can reveal our social, religious or even political position in the society.

Certain kinds of fruit and vegetables grow only in the semi-arid regions while others require colder climat. Therefore, certain foods are more popular in one area than the other. Additionally, some kinds of fruit and vegetables are seasonal. Thus, food choice may vary with seasons depending on the supplies in the market. People tend to prefer certain food depending on their health conditions. For example, people with diabetes do not consume foods that contain high levels of sugar and starch. Conversely, sportsmen normally consume high energy foods.

The rational choice theory is also applicable in determining food preferences in different societies. According to John Scott and other sociologists, persons are provoked by their wants or goals that express their ‘preferences’.  We all have different food tastes and preferences. Even though food choices change with time, the factors that affect what we eat remain the same. 

Classification of the Factors that Affect Food Choice

Determinants of food choice can be biological, sociological or economic in nature. Food choice determinants change according to one’s life stage. The factors that determine our food patterns vary from one person or group to the other.

Biological Factors that Affect Food Choice

Sensory Aspects

Sensory aspects (taste and palatability) are the key determinants of food choice. Taste can be described as the total sensory stimulation that results from ingestion of food.  Other sensory factors include the texture, smell and appearance of foods. Taste affects food preference from an early age. We are all born with biological predispositions for liking a sweet taste and rejecting a sour or bitter taste. Food aversions result from bad experiences and are affected by our beliefs and attitudes. 

Palatability refers to the pleasure that someone feels when eating a certain food. Foods that are sweet or have a high percentage of fat are highly palatable. Palatability affects one’s appetite and the amount of food intake.

Hunger and Satiety

Physiological needs are the key determinants of food preference. One needs energy in order to survive, thus, human body has  various mechanisms that control hunger and satiety, which are controlled by the central nervous system and the brain. There are three types of significant for growth and development macronutrients: proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Among three, proteins have a higher satiating power than fats and carbohydrates (Bellisle 2005).

Economic and Physical Factors that Affect What People Eat;

Cost and Accessibility of Foods

Cost is an important factor in determination of food choice since one only eats what he can afford. Therefore, cost can be a prohibitive factor depending on one’s earnings and socio-economic class. Low income earners tend to have unbalanced diets with low percentage of vegetables and fruits. The variety of foods that one can select increases with an increase in income. This implies that people who have a stable middle and higher income can afford a balanced diet that has sufficient vitamins, proteins, roughage, fats and carbohydrates.

Accessibility to food supplies affects one’s food choice. The two significant aspects of accessibility that influence what one eats is the geographical area of residence and transport infrastructure.  Plant products that can be obtained locally are always cheap, since no transport costs incurred in the logistic chain. Seasonal food supplies affect what one buys due to availability and cheap cost of seasonal products.

Education and Knowledge

Commonly, people with higher education consume a wide variety of foods due to their ample knowledge of food products. Social media can change one’s decisions to cook a particular meal or to buy a certain food. For example,  adverts can make one like or reject certain foods. Most adverts may make one buy certain products without considering their health implications. Food choices change with age as one gains general life experience including the nutritional principles as well.   One’s health dietary choices result from how educated and knowledgeable one is about ‘healthy eating’ (Hannah P. par 7-11).

The food choices that one makes reflect his knowledge on how he can increase fruit and vegetables intake in a cost effective manner. Insufficient cooking skills also limit the foods that one buys..

Sociological Factors

Social Structures and Cultural Environment

Food choice and dietary behaviour is highly determined by social influences and cultural practices. One usually  has meals with friends, family, workmates or other members of the society. Thus, one is prone to consume certain foods due to the influence of colleagues or peer pressure. Eating with others can be either helpful or detrimental in terms of healthy heating. (Overview of determinants of food choice and dietary, pp. 2-9).  Parental eating habits affect the choices that one makes about what we eat. Research shows, that children who regularly dine with their families have more balanced diets than those who spedt less time in their homes.

Culture can be explained as the awareness, beliefs, traditional norms and behaviours that are learned, shared and spread by members of a particular group. Culture is a global perspective shared by the society and thus, it affects its peoples’ eating habits. Cultural activities and ancestral origins are the basic factors in determination of one’s food choices and alternatives. People from different regions have different eating habits. For instance, Jews do not eat pork while Hindus do not consume beef. Americans do not eat insects like some communities from other parts of the world (Factors that influence food choices, par 2). People from Texas and Indians prefer hot and spicy foods. Therefore, food preferences are stipulated by the culture. . 

Different associations to which one  belongs have a great impact on one’s food options. Such organizations include religious, communal, social or professional among others. Voluntary setups include churches, sporting clubs and friendly associations. Government structures and professional organizations can dictate the type of food that one eats and the proportions of one’s food intake. Institutions like schools and colleges have policies that regulate the procurement, storage and consumption of foods. Family is well renowned for its role in determining one’s food preferences.  The effect of culture on food choice can change when one moves to new places or interacts with new people.

Social Class

There are disparities in the foods consumed by the representatives of different social classes. Representatives of upper social class have a richer diet than those in lower social classes respectively. Individuals with high income can afford to buy more healthy products, i.g. fruits, fish meat, whole meal products and vegetables. Eventually, high socioeconomic groups have a wide variety of diets because they are financially stable and are highly knowledgeable with health eating habits.  On the other hand, cases of over-nutrition are common with the higher socioeconomic groups than lower social classes. Low socioeconomic groups consume foods that are readily available and cheap,  meaning consume foods that may lack some essential nutrients and vitamins. 

Our Past Experiences with Food

Our preferences for particular foods are mostly acquired (Overview of the determinants of food choice and dietary change, n.d. pp 2-9). Human beings have the ability to learn from the consequences of eating certain foods. One’s eating patterns are affected by positive or negative costs that one faced from consuming particular products. Positive consequences lead to food preferences while negative consequences lead to food aversions.

Food Choice and Nutrition Education

Nutrition education is a key factor that determines the decisions one makes regarding his food choice. People tend to take foods that have a high nutritional value. Lack of the right nutrition education makes people to disregard some items especially fruits and vegetables.    Overnutrition or undernutrition can occur due the information that one has about the significance of certain foods. One can avoid poor eating habits like overindulgence in alcohol by being acknowledged about the consequences of consuming such products.   Additionally, nutrition education can help one to regulate the amounts of food one consumes and/or try new foods. Other factors that affect one’s food choices include stress, mood and guilt. These psychological aspects may change one’s eating habits. For example, there are people who eat more foods when they are stressed. On the other hand, some people lose appetite and result to eating fruits and snacks.

Sociological Theories of Food Choice

There are several theories that explain the determinants of one’s food choice. Health behavioural models describe human behaviour in relation to food decisions. Such models can also be used to examine the possibility of a dietary change.

The Health Belief Model (HBM) and the Protection Motivation Theory

Rosenstock established the HBM in 1966. This model predicts the protective health behaviour like screening, medication and vaccination. According to this theory, people change their eating patterns when they are threatened by illness or  when they have to conduct a cost-benefit study. The model suggests that one needs to be provoked to change his health behaviours. For example, people with diabetes avoid eating sweet foods upon the diagnosis while ulcer patients avoid acidic or spicy meals. 

The Theory of Planned Behaviour

This theory is based on attitude-behaviour relationship. In this model, it is assumed that      one’s food choices are mediated by one’s attitudes and beliefs. Beliefs about the nutritional value of a meal can be more significant than the actual food nutritional value in determining ones’ food choice. Similarly, marketing, socioeconomic, cultural and religious factors may act in line with the attitudes and beliefs held by a certain community. The relationship between food decisions and beliefs/attitudes is a significant way of understanding various determinants of food choice. One’s attitudes are closely related to one’s behaviours (Shepherd 1999). This relationship is practical according to the findings of social psychology studies. The correlation between behaviour and attitude is not very significant i.e. P<0.001. This means that attitude is not linked to behaviour to a reasonable degree. The study of behavior-attitude relationship resulted to structured attitude models.

The Theory of Reasoned Action is an extension of the Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB). Thie theory was extensively used in social psychology and is currently employed in food choice subjects. The Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) describes behaviour as an aspect under the power of an individual. TBT is practical in cases where one has non-volitional behaviors i.e. a conduct that is not under the sole control of an individual. A correlation of about 0.53 between intention and behaviour was realized using the TRA model (Shepherd 1999). This serves as a proof that the theory is applicable in the study of food choice determinants and general consumer preferences.

Even though, the TBT and the Theory of Reasoned Action sound reasonable in the subject of food choice, though there are certaing limitations in their execution and conceptualization. For that reason, several extensions have been brought forth. These include moral and ethical concerns. Moral concerns are significant in prediction of one’s food choices. Respectively, ethical values are crucial when foods are bought or prepared for other persons. Application of moral values to the mentioned theories improves the practicability of the discussed arguments.

Stages of Change Model

This theory was pioneered by Prochaska. He found out that health behaviour changes occur in five phases. These phases include: the pre-contemplation stage, contemplation phase, preparation, action and maintenance phase. The Stages of Change theory are commonly used in determining one’s dietary change rather than in describing the current factors that affect one’s food choice. Additionally, different factors affect one’s food choices at the various stages listed above. One’s responses to change his food eating habits vary; individuals at the pre-contemplation stage can change their food preferences faster than persons at the maintenance phase.

Currently, there is no particular theory that adequately describes and predicts one’s food choice behaviours. These models are mainly meant to help one  understand the different factors that affect one’s  food preferences and habits.

Dietary Change and Optimistic Bias

Most people do not consider changing their diet due to health reasons. Lack of readiness to make dietary changes shows a high degree of optimistic bias. Majority believe that their current meals are healthy and rich in all the necessary nutrients. According to a research done in Europe, 71% of the persons interviewed were satisfied with their current foods and would not consider changing their food choices (Bellisle 2005). Failure to change diets can result to health hazards like obesity, heart diseases and diabetes. The fact that one is ambivalent about healthy eating habits makes him to neglect dietary change. Food choice research shows that some foods that taste nice are not healthy for our consumption.  Therefore, people have different reactions about changing their eating patterns.

Successful Interventions in Dietary Change

Various setups like institutions, workplaces, shopping malls and society based studies have been used to achieve health eating habits. Point-of-purchase information can help people to change their food preferences in order to achieve a balanced diet and avoid health risks.  Vegetable and fruit consumption can be raised through advertising  and teaching about the significance of healthy diet in the social media. Therefore, nutritional education and behavioural counselling would lead to higher consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Conclusion

As discussed above, food choice is affected by numerous factors. Food choice determinants may also vary from one person to the other. Sociological factors and one’s environment are the main factors influencing one’s diet preferences. Information also determines what one eats. The study of food choice determinants should provide one with a platform to improve one’s eating habits in order to avoid health risks and have a balanced diet. Though there is a number of hindrances to dietary change. These factors differ according to the age and social position of a person.

Appropriate measures should be put in place to ensure that people make good food choices. Poor food selection can lead to health complications or even to loss of life and. Most deaths result from prolonged bad eating habits and lifestyles. Life expectancy can be raised by restructuring one’s diets. To facilitate this, a sufficient conveyance of credible information on foods should be available to everybody. Training forums, health adverts and campaigns should be used to foster good food choices.

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