Why Do You Eat What You Eat? Understanding Food Choices (Part 4)

Not many people would argue with me on the fact that the food we put in our bodies is one of the most important influencers of our health. While there are so many factors that influence what food ends up in our mouths, ultimately as adults what we eat is well within our circle of control. During this four part series I set out to try to put into words why we eat the food that we eat. There were four key ideas that I wanted to highlight, three of which have already been covered.
  1. We have physiological drivers that make us want to eat. We are wired to crave energy, our cells need it to survive. This was explored through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When we meet the physical needs of the body our needs are then driven by psychological and self-efficacy needs. (Part 1)
  2. The role of attitudes, social norms and perceived behavioural control play a big role in what we choose to buy, to cook and to eat with attitude having the strongest correlation with behaviour. This was addressed by applying the Theory of Planed Behaviour to our food choices. (Part II)
  3. Habits and past behaviours are one of the strongest predictors of future behaviour and unless you consciously design the environment to support a change and repeatedly practice the new behaviour, we find it very hard to break away from existing patterns of behaviour. (Part III)
And the fourth reason?
  1. We are a product of our environment!
The effect of our environment on our food consumption behaviour overlaps with all of the other areas we have looked at thus far and plays a huge role in what food we eat. When it comes to food choices, our environment is not merely the trees growing in the street, or the community vegetable garden down the road. Our environment comprises every place and system we live within, from our family make up to the broader political and cultural environment we live within which plays an important role in the types of foods made available or considered suitable for consumption in our culture.
To get a better understanding, let’s apply another framework (yay), the Ecological Framework!

Ecological Models of Behaviour

Ecological models of health behaviour place the individual at the centre of the model surrounded by layers of environmental influencers.

Using a model such as Bronfenbrenner’s model, shown here, demonstrates the overlap between the varying environmental contexts the individual exists within and that it’s the combination of each layer that influences behaviour.

The inner circle represents the individual who is surrounded by their immediate environment known as the Microsystem. The Microsystem represents all the interactions the individual has with people in their lives such as family members, peers and school or work colleagues. The following layer, the Mesosystem is the environment in which the microsystem relationships take place in and connects the Microsystem to the Exosystem.

The Exosystem is the broader community the individual resides within but does not necessarily directly interact with such as the industry associations, educational institutions and the political environment. Finally, the outer layer of the model consists of the Macrosystem which represents the cultural norms and societal laws.

Each level of the model influences food choice and consumption behaviour in some way. The inner circle representing the individual encompasses the attitudes the person has towards various foods. The following two circles have a large bearing on what food is available to an individual in their community, what they like, what foods they tend to purchase and when they eat.
The outer levels will have a large bearing on food behaviour in the form of what is accepted as food in the culture and what foods are grown in or imported into the area. An example of how the Exosystem can impact food choice through politics is if the government were to introduce a tax on food products containing added sugar, this would make those products more expensive and may influence an individual’s decision to purchase them or make an alternative decision.
Cultural ideologies are more likely to inform food choice behaviour in an unconscious manner as the individual may not question why things are done a certain way but rather accept that it is normal such as which foods you could expect to purchase at a restaurant or whether you would buy fried scorpions from a street market! (spew)…

Summing it all up

An ecological appreciation is important as it acknowledges while individuals make choices as to what foods they consume, their choices are largely a product of their environment in the form of what foods they have been exposed to and the foods which are available to them. From a social standpoint we can see that other people have perhaps the most significant role in our food behaviour particularly as we grow up and begin to form our food preferences. So while you could blame Mum or your culture for the food that you eat as a result of the environment you grew up in, you also have the power to change the story and make a new choice (however, you might also need to consider changing your environment).
  1. Sallis JF, Owen N, Fischer EB. Health behaviour and health education theory research and practice. 4th ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; c2008. Chapter 20, Ecological models of health behaviour; p. 465-85.
  2. Hardcastle SJ, Thøgersen-Ntoumani C, Chatzisarantis NL. Food Choice and Nutrition: A Social Psychological Perspective. Nutrients. 2015 Oct 21;7:8712-15.