Why Do You Eat What You Eat? Understanding Food Choices (Part 2)

I’ve loved getting back into football this year, after my first attempt at retirement last year (ha). The pre-season helped me sharpen my fitness and the familiar routine gives me a sense of stability. Thursday night training is a buzz, though I must admit partially because I’m looking forward to the end of the session to get inside and see how much food I can eat for $10! Anyone familiar with the Aussie rules community club culture is accustomed to the Thursday night meal which usually includes fried nuggets and chips for the kids (but I’ll save this bug bear for another post).
A few weeks ago following Thursday night training, I was doing my usual thing which is to try and load as much of the veggies or salad onto my plate as I can. Then when I found a seat, I was talking to some of the young guys who’s plates looked very different to mine. It appeared they preferred single colour meals and traded any semblance of real food for extra fries. These are young athletes mind you, and it often leaves me pondering how they fuel their body to perform and recover. I digress…
I politely and non-judgementally pose the question, “no veggies mate?” 
The answer, “Na I don’t really like them.”
When you are fortunate enough to have access to pretty much any type of food you want, always satisfy your hunger and never have to think about where your next meal is coming from, why do so many people give little thought to what they eat?
In part one of this series (found here), we had a quick glance at food choice behaviour from the point of view of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to consider some of the drivers of our behaviour. Now we turn to a well known behavioural process model, The Theory of Planned Behaviour, to provide another perspective.

The Theory of Planned Behaviour

Developed by Icek Ajzen, the Theory provides a model to describe and predict human behaviour through the lens of three belief types; behavioural, normative and control. It is these belief systems which inform a person’s intention to act in a certain way.
In this model, intention is the key predictor of behaviour, so we must understand what influences our intentions.
Intention signifies our desire to perform a behaviour which according to the model is a result of our attitude towards the behaviour, whether we believe it to be socially acceptable in the eyes of our peers and significant others and the degree to which the behaviour (or alternatives) are within our control.

Attitude

Attitude has been found to have the strongest association with behaviour followed by perceived behavioural control and then subjective norm. It’s an individual’s attitude towards certain foods which creates a set of beliefs such as regular fast food consumption being acceptable or it is beneficial to forgo hedonically pleasing food like french-fries in favour of more nutritious foods like vegetables.

Perceived Behavioural Control

Perceived behavioural control refers to one’s perception of the control they have over their actual behaviour in terms of the resources, time, money and opportunities available to them. Whether or not an individual believes they have the skills, time, resources and ability to prepare tasty yet healthy meals is a major influencer of food choice. An individual may regularly opt for cheap, convenient and less healthy takeaway food due to believing they do not have the time to cook a healthy meal.

Subjective Norm

Subjective norm is a social determinant which results in selection of certain behaviours over others based on what we think other people think about those behaviours. The more an individual perceives a behaviour to be a socially acceptable behaviour, the more likely they are to participate in it.
In the context of making healthy food choices, if the behaviour of eating a healthy diet full of vegetables is seen by as a positive behaviour (attitude) that is socially encouraged by your peer group and family (subjective norm) and is also within you control, as in you have these foods available to you (perceived behavioural control), would there be any reason you would eat anything but this healthy diet? The answer as we’ve already found is yes.
One reason could be (as Ajzen acknowledged himself) that intention alone is not the sole predictor of behaviour and the model doesn’t recognise the role of past behaviours or habits as an influencer of future behaviour. We often form behavioural patterns and continue to do what is familiar.
In part three of this series I’ll be covering the role habits as well as how the immediate and broader cultural environment play a large role in our attitude towards food choice behaviours. For now have a think about the following;
  1. What attitudes contribute to your food choices? For example; mashed potato has a disgusting consistency and spaghetti is inedible because it looks like worms (maybe just in my house, and no, it’s not me)! Attitude towards certain foods is the biggest influencer of food choice. To change a food behaviour we must examine our attitude first.
  2. How does your perceived behavioural control impact on your food choices? For example; I don’t have time, I don’t know how to cook, I don’t like cooking. Recognising that all these things are actually within your control is the first step.
  3. How do your social circumstances influence your food choices? Think about your work situation which can have a huge influence; “let’s all go get schnitzel burgers today at lunch time” or “I’m going to get a coffee, would you like another one?” Also your home environment; if the kids won’t eat it, should you bother making it? Absolutely, because repeated exposure to foods influences liking of those foods (research shows this) and you’re also setting the best example for them!
I hope this has given further appreciation of the complexity of food choice behaviour.
Eat your veggies!
References
  1. Ajzen, I. The theory of planned behavior. Organ Behav Hum Dec. 1991;50:179–211.
  2. McDermott MS, Oliver M, Svenson A, Simnadis T, Beck JE, Coltman T, et al. The theory of planned behaviour and discrete food choices: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Natr Phy. 2015;12:162.
  3. Azjen I. The theory of planned behaviour: Reactions and reflections. Psychol Health. 2011 Sep;26(9):1113-27
  4. Hardcastle SJ, Thøgersen-Ntoumani C, Chatzisarantis NL. Food Choice and Nutrition: A Social Psychological Perspective. Nutrients. 2015 Oct 21;7:8712-15.