Why Do You Eat What You Eat? Understanding Food Choices (Part 1)

What really drives food behaviour?

There are a multitude of theories that have been developed by psychologists, nutritionists and back yard gurus in an attempt to describe and predict why we put certain foods in our mouth. Yet the food choice landscape continues to become infinitely more puzzling, with new food products, advice, diets and apps available every other day.

So, why do we eat what we eat? That’s what I’m attempting to answer over this four part series. I hope you follow along and use it as an opportunity to look inward and think about why you really eat the food you eat.

When trying to understand human behaviour it is helpful to view it in the context of what drives human behaviour. Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, a well-known psychological model is a great starting point for this series as it describes the drivers of behaviour, being a desire to fulfil varying levels of needs.

You might be familiar with the model which presents five categories of needs in a pyramid with the bottom level, the physiological needs, being the most basic needs and our highest priority. It culminates in the top-level needs which are self-fulfilment needs as seen below.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The premise of the model is that humans will aim to meet their basic physiological needs first such as eating and drinking before going about trying to fulfil higher level needs such as the need for love and belonging or the desire for feelings of accomplishment.

Thinking about the foods we eat from the perspective of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, once a person has satisfied their physiological need for food (they are no longer hungry) and they have an adequate level of food security (they know where their next meal is coming from) their basic food needs are met.

In Australia 13.3% of people are said to live below the poverty line, which is an alarming stat, and these people are most likely concerned with meeting their physiological needs and obtaining enough food to eat. Most of the other 86% of people should have adequate food security and be able to satisfy their hunger. Their food choices would then be determined by the next level needs, the psychological needs. An example being an individual’s need for belonging impacting on the foods they choose to eat due to compromising on their own wants to satisfy the social group. They might engage in certain eating behaviour like eating takeaway because their friends desire it and it’s a socially acceptable activity. Not to mention nobody wants to be seen as judgemental or elitist for not engaging in the group activity, we’d much rather be included. Another example could be a desire for feelings of accomplishment influencing the types of restaurants a person visits, choosing upper-class experiences which fulfil a status need or what they consider a social norm.

Without broaching the subject of eating disorders, there are many ways that our psychological needs influence our eating behaviour such as eating as a reward, eating for a celebration and eating for distraction or boredom (possibly to avoid finishing a blog post or assignment)!


The Takeaway

To summarise part 1, the take away points are:

  1. There are varying levels of needs that we attempt to satisfy which influence our behaviour such as food choice and consumption behaviour.
  2. A majority of Australians are capable of meeting their physiological needs which results in their food choices often being influenced by psychological and self-fulfilment needs.

In part two I’m going to explore how our beliefs influence our food choice behaviour through the lens of a common behavioural process model.