What determines our Food Choices – and how does this affect our health?

From an evolutionary standpoint we ate food to get energy and we also stored this energy in the form of fat to survive when food was scarce. Now we live in a part of the world with a surplus of food but unfortunately our body’s ability to store fat hasn’t changed. 

We do need a certain amount of fat for healthy body functioning. However, current levels of food consumption are leading to an accumulation of excess fat. This increases the risk of diseases such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes and cancer. According the Health Survey for England (2016) 26% of men and 27% of women aged 16 and over in England were obese, and a further 40% of men and 30% of women were overweight.

Unless we do something to prevent this, current trends suggest 60% of males and 50% of females will be obese by 2050.

Why is this happening? 

Historically our sense of taste (sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami) ensured that we consumed foods that were crucial for survival (providing energy, salt and protein) and avoided foods that were dangerous (rotten or poisonous). However our food preferences are now a lot more complex and are also influenced by our environment, social context and our cultural and individual experiences.

Our dietary preferences develop early in life. They are believed to begin in the womb and exposure to certain foods whilst in the womb has been linked to an increased dietary preference later in life. Exposure to certain flavours during prenatal and postnatal periods has also been linked to an increased enjoyment in the infant of these specific flavours during weaning.

In addition studies have found that breastfed infants have a more diverse food preference compared with infants who were formula fed.

It is important to mention that exposure alone is not the only factor contributing to food preferences. However the mother’s diet and the parent’s feeding habits play a significant role in dietary preferences over time.

The increased prevalence of overweight and obesity seems to be associated with a ‘nutrition transition’ where people are moving away from traditional diets that were nutrient dense (and rich in fibre) to highly refined, low-fibre diets (processed foods that are rich in sugar, fat and salt).

This, coupled with changes in occupational habits and lower physical activity patterns have resulted in an alarmingly high prevalence of lifestyle related diseases. 

So why are people not motivated to eat healthily?’

1. Convenience & time scarcity 

The UK convenience food market was valued at £24.9bn in 2007 and is continuing to grow at an alarmingly high rate.

The supermarkets have been flooded with ready to eat meals that are available at affordable costs. However, although ready to eat meals are convenient they tend be high in calories, fat, sodium and preservatives, while being low in fibre, vitamins and minerals. 

Studies have found that young adults and working professionals are drawn towards convenience foods as they value the time that they save on meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking

Time-scarcity” has been identified as one of the main factors that affect food choices in developed countries. Individuals who see themselves as being short of time try to limit household tasks like cooking in order to save time and choose convenience options instead of traditional home cooked meals.  

2. Palatableness: (taste)

Foods rich in fat and sugar are referred to as palatable foods. They have been found to increase feelings of hunger while also reducing the response to satiety signals  (feeling full). So the more refined foods we consume the more we will desire these foods, with an increased appetite that results in overeating.

3. Diet trends (Dukan diet, Atkins, Weight watchers etc)

With the increase in obesity rates, there has also been a surge in the number of weight loss programmes and fad diets that have gained popularity. However, while these diets may result in rapid weight loss in the short term, the long-term success of these diets tends to be poor and they have been associated with weight gain within one year.

This could possibly be due to the restrictive nature of these diets, which don’t result in a change in eating behaviour towards a more holistic and healthy diet.

4. Psychologically affected eating (stress eating, emotional eating)

Recent research has shown that emotions such as stress, depression and sadness can lead to ‘comfort eating’, which isn’t in line with nutritional recommendations (i.e. increased intake of highly refined and poor quality foods).

Studies have also found that emotional eating resulted in a higher consumption of sweet energy-dense foods (sweet and high-fat foods such as pastries, desserts, chocolates etc) in both men and women.

Dietary Trends in the U.K:

According to the National Obesity Observatory (2011) report, the majority of the U.K public are aware of the government’s health messages and most are inclined towards improving their diet.

In fact, a recent study done on 550 university students in London, found that students of today were motivated to lead healthier lifestyles and many were keen on changing their eating behaviour to become healthier.

With the increasing awareness of the benefits of good nutrition there has been a shift in dietary preferences to more plant-based diets worldwide. According to Google trends there has been a significant increase particularly in veganism since 2012 across the world. And the Vegan society reported that in 2018 there were 600,000 vegans in the U.K., which equates to 1.16% of the population.

Research has shown that consumption of a balanced plant-based diet has been associated with health benefits such as lower cholesterol levels, lower Body Mass Index (BMI) and a reduced incidence of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

According to Mintel’s research on the rise of veganism, 34% of meat-eaters have reduced their consumption of meat in 2018 with the number one motivation being health.

And research from a consumer panel of 300,000 households in the U.K. found that there is a shift towards more vegetarian meals where 26.9% of evening meals were vegetarian in 2014 and 27.8 % in 2016.

Making healthier food choices

You can find out more in this related article – How to ensure we eat more healthily

Hannah Kurian, November 2018. Next review date October 2022.