Factors That Influence Food Choices
By: Julie Mancuso, founder and owner of JM Nutrition, registered dietitians and nutritionists at JM Nutrition, updated May 2022
In this post:
List of factors that influence food choices
How these factors influence the food choices we make
Self-awareness is important because when we understand ourselves better, it is easier to set goals and create an action plan according to our own individual needs. Similarly, in order to fully understand why we eat the foods we eat, we need to examine the factors that influence food choices. When we are aware of these influences, we can then begin to plan to make better, healthier choices. At the same time we are able to better avoid various pitfalls that sabotage positive eating habits.
Factors that influence food choices
Surely, culture has an enormous influence on what we eat. The world is teeming with unique cultures. Each culture comes with its own customs, social institutions, expectations and, of course, food. In addition, each one of these cultures influences how we eat and what we eat from the day we are born.
People in different cultures consume certain foods for many reasons. Other foods, on the other hand, are discouraged. Some are even prohibited.
At times, the foods we grew up eating are not all that beneficial, nutritionally speaking. Some people find it difficult to shift from eating traditional foods to which they have been accustomed all their lives to new ones. For this reason it is important to make the adjustments incrementally, finding more nutritious substitutions, while still enjoying some of those traditional foods.
Religion is also one of the factors that influence food choices.
Some religions encourage abstinence from certain meats such as beef or pork. Other religions frown upon the use of alcohol. Others still avoid caffeinated products, as mandated by their religious sect.
Today, religious restrictions can be navigated with greater ease. This is largely because healthier replacements or similar products can be found in abundance.
Our family has an enormous influence on the foods we eat. As such, it’s one of the most noteworthy factors that influence food choices.
Specifically, our parents play an integral role in what we like to eat. As children, most of our meals are prepared by and eaten with our families. According to the National Center For Biotechnology Information, “children come with a set of behavioural predispositions that allow them to learn to accept the foods made available to them.” This is especially true in the first few years of children’s lives.
As a result, children who grow up in a household that values health and nutrition are much more likely to eat balanced, nutritious foods as adults.
Children who are exposed to less nutritious foods, on the other hand, have values pertaining to food selection and preferences that are shaped accordingly. This is an important observation for anyone wishing to make changes to his or her eating habits. It may, therefore, be more difficult to make certain food selections for some people. This may not be a matter of lack of willpower. Rather, it may be one borne more out of habit.
From the moment we begin school, our values and choices are shaped by those with whom we associate. As we grow up and gain greater independence, the degree to which our parents influence our food selections diminishes. The impact our families have on what we eat begins to be replaced by what we see our peers eat, particularly at school.
Because we are impressionable as young children and because we like to fit in, it is very easy to emulate the behaviour of others. Frequently, we may begin to accept certain behavioural patterns as the norm. At times, this means eating foods we see others eating, regardless if we like them.
To eat more intuitively and according to our own individual needs and preferences, it’s important to break-free from such unquestioning conformity. This, however, is not to say that a person should never try foods he or she sees peers eating. Not at all. An open mind is essential. This principle applies to selecting foods and generally in life. Always selecting foods simply because others are eating it may do little for self-discovery.
Physical stage of development
Though often overlooked or omitted, this factor that influences our food choices is nonetheless important.
Unquestionably, our physical stage of development affects what foods we eat and how much. A growing adolescent with a fast metabolism may require more food and with greater frequency than an older adult.
Because nutritional needs change as we get older, our diet should reflect these changes.
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world where food is scarce it is impossible to have any choice at all when it comes to food. This is an incredibly sad fact of life. And it certainly requires a staunch and sustained effort on the human race to eradicate. For many of us, however, it is possible to have some say in what foods are bought and eaten.
Without a doubt, how much food costs is an important factor that influences food choices. Frequently, how much money we have at our disposal severely restricts what food we can buy. This is especially true when more nutritious foods tend to cost more than heavily processed, nutrient-drained foods.
With guidance from health professionals and a little self-research, learning to buy and eat nutritious foods is no doubt possible, even on a tight budget.
How much money we make is certainly one of the factors that influence food choices. And there are a number of reasons that contribute here, according to BMC Health.
Generally speaking, with a relatively good income, we have greater purchasing power. This power can translate to being able to afford a wider variety of food products. It’s cause and effect.
Of course, it takes more than a few dollars in the pocket to decide to buy nutritious foods. But there is no question that money makes such food more accessible.
Nonetheless, it’s important is to learn to purchase food that is as nutritious as possible with the money we have.
Availability and access
Speaking of access, the availability of food is another important factor that influences food choices.
Depending on where we live, we may not have easy access to a variety of foods. In fact, we may not have access to some at all. Ever.
Consequently, the food choices that are made are entirely based on what is currently available. At times, limited availability may make it difficult to eat nutritionally-balanced meals. There is no doubt about that. Many remote, geographically-isolated communities, in this country and many others, experience problems with food availability.
Closely related to availability, a factor that can influence our food choices is the options listed on the restaurant menu.
At times, we are compelled to compromise what we would really like to eat and select an alternative, a second or third best.
The good news is that most restaurants these days allow for substitutions and modifications of meals to suit the given needs of the person. That said, limited options at some restaurants can affect our food choices.
For some, proximity is one of the most significant factors that influence food choices.
In fact, buying local is becoming increasingly more popular as socially aware consumers place a great deal of importance on supporting their local communities.
Rather than going through an impersonal process of buying form a larger corporation, many people are choosing to buy foods, products and services that originate close to home. Supporting small- and medium-sized, local businesses in such a way can build a sense of community and prosperity.
How food was produced
The manner in which food was produced is also becoming more and more important for many people. As such, it is a factor that influences food selection that cannot be overlooked.
Consumers are increasingly looking at production methods such as:
- Is the food product organic?
- Has the food been made with GMO or non-GMO ingredients?
- Is the meat free-range, grain-fed as well as hormone and antibiotic-free?
These are just some of the questions that are often considered before buying certain foods.
Another factor that influences food choices that we make is education.
Simply put, the more background knowledge we have about the nutritional value of foods, the better the position to make informed choices. This is precisely why our nutritional counselling sessions focus on education as it applies to meal planning.
Deep down inside we want to make good choices. This applies not only to food selection, but also to other aspects of life. If we have all the information before us, we are more likely to make those choices.
Cooking passion and skill
Some of us love to meal prep and cook, while others do not. Similarly, some of us are blessed with culinary skills, whereas others not so much.
The greater the passion for cooking, the greater the drive to want to cook. And the greater the motivation, the more opportunities to develop and refine cooking skills. When we enjoy cooking and can do it well, we are certainly less likely to buy and eat processed, nutrient-stripped foods.
Although exceptions exist, those of us who are competent cooks are less likely to resort to buying take-out food.
Conversely, those who do not enjoy cooking or do not feel confident in the kitchen, are likely to rely more on the convenience of fast, processed or packaged food.
Without a doubt, time matters. How much time we have can no doubt prove a key factor that influences food choices.
These days it is very difficult for many of us to find the time to prepare food from scratch for ourselves, let alone the whole family. As we become busier and busier, there seems to be less time for cooking meals at home.
That, coupled with the slew of fast food restaurants and food delivery services, makes it less likely that those of us who lead busy lifestyles will cook at home. The accessibility of such services is a great convenience, a convenience that has an indelible impact on what foods we eat.
Our mental health is another one of the factors that influence food choices.
For example, depression, anxiety, frustration, anger and so on, are all interlinked with overindulgences in highly palatable foods. Rather than dealing with the root cause of unpleasant feelings, which can be challenging and prolonged, it is more simple for some to reach for a piece of sugary, salty or high-fat food that provides temporary relief.
For those who struggle managing such behaviour patterns, it is important to seek help from the right health professionals.
This is another significant factor that influences the food choices we make. Although many people think that body image struggles are something that adolescents often go through, the impact is far-reaching across all age groups.
Feeling dissatisfied with how your body looks can lead to decisions harmful to the health of your body. For example, when you follow a fad diet, you often deprive your self of certain foods to lose weight and change the way you look.
Although doing so may potentially help you lose weight in the short-term, the damage to your physical and mental well-being may be far, far greater in the long-term.
We call this phenomenon a disordered eating pattern. Learn more about other examples of disordered eating patterns and behaviours.
Surely, self-esteem influences the food choices we make.
When your self-worth is high and you thoroughly feel good about yourself, you tend to make wiser, healthier food selections. You do so because you respect and care for your body.
Closely related to mental health, our mood can affect the food choices we make.
Food stimulates neurons, increasing the levels of serotonin–the body’s primary pleasure system. When our mood is low and we have a difficult time finding natural ways to improve it, we may resort to finding artificial ways of doing so. One of these ways is through food that makes us feel good, comfort food.
Growing levels of stress in today’s world can certainly affect the food choices we make.
As stress increases, many of us seek for ways to escape, relax and decompress. Some of us do so through healthful activities such as exercise, nature walks, yoga, listening to music and so on.
Others, however, turn to food to obtain a similar effect. Highly palatable foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat can produce a powerful pleasurable effect almost instantaneously.
For this and many other reasons, it’s important to address the underlying causes of stress.
Related: 10 Ways To Ease Stress
At the same time, it’s important to consume foods and supplements that lower cortisol, and hence, stress.
Undoubtedly, guilt is one of the factors that can influence food choices.
The guilt that some of us experience following the consumption and/or overindulgence of a highly-palatable food can be a powerful motivator.
That is to say that some of us may deny ourselves our favourite treat out of guilt that we had experienced following our last indulgence. There is no room for feelings of guilt or shame when our relationship with food is a positive one.
We explore this idea in greeted depth in this post: Intuitive Eating: Principles, Challenges And Important Considerations
According to Nutrition Stripped, “It has been shown that guilt could impact consumers’ eating and drinking behaviors in multiple ways, such as the amount of intake, frequency, occasions (late night, special moments), location (home or restaurant), cook from scratch or not, name the food differently to feel better, and so forth.”
For better or worse, guilt can lead some of us to make better food choices.
Our beliefs certainly affect food choices.
There are a number of ethical concerns that lead us to eat certain foods while avoiding others.
Some of us abstain from eating animal products, not just for health reasons, but also because we are concerned with the welfare of animals.
Meanwhile, others make their food selections that are dependent on sustainability and the impact on the environment.
Others still, choose to eat foods based on fair trade and labour practices.
These are just a few of the many ethical reasons that are contributing factors that influence food choices.
These can be environmental, cultural and religious.
Routines can have their roots at home, work and social groups, amongst many others.
The act of eating can be a firmly-embedded routine during our favourite Netflix show, before or after a workout, or the learned behaviour of always having dessert after dinner.
Eating routines can be a powerful influence on the food we eat, so much so that when we choose to break the habit for one reason or another, it can prove challenging.
Taking part in athletic competitions and sporting activities can have an enormous impact on the food choices we make. After all, diet differs for athletes who perform endurance sports to those athletes who take part in combat sports or to those who engage in strength training or weightlifting.
Studies show that proper nutrition is a critical component of improved athletic performance. As such, it has increasingly become the focus of many athletes and sporting organizations, be it amateur, competitive or professional.
Athletes of all ages and genders choose the foods they eat to help them fuel, sustain, recover and repair their bodies. For those whose goal is achieving peak performance in a given discipline, selecting foods that help the cause is likely the most important factor that influences food choices.
Without a doubt, how hydrated you are affects your food and drink selection. When thirsty, you naturally feel the need to replenish lost water. This will likely result in taking in liquid that quenches thirst such as water, rather than a sweet milkshake-type drink.
Similarly, when you’re thirsty, you’re likely turn to foods that have a high water content such as watermelon, cantaloupe, apples or even cucumber.
Dietary conditions, sensitivities, intolerances and allergies
Naturally, various dietary conditions, sensitivities, intolerances and allergies all play an important role in food selection. Special diets (veganism, plant-based eating, vegetarianism, flexitarian, gluten-free, etc.) require their own individualized consideration and approach.
Anyone who is afflicted with any of the aforementioned must carefully choose foods to avoid adverse side effects that can occur if certain foods are ingested.
If a test indicates that your body is lacking certain nutrients, your diet may require tweaking to ensure that these missing nutrients are taken in. For this reason, deficiencies in certain nutrients can surely influence our food choices, whether we like it or not.
Learn more about common nutrient deficiencies.
This is certainly one of the more common and obvious factors that influence food choices.
When we are hungry, we need to eat food. Otherwise, we may experience unpleasant symptoms such as lightheadedness, irritability, growling stomach, fatigue and so on. It’s quite simple, really.
There are a couple of tricky parts here though. One challenge is to be able to select foods that are nutritious while we are experiencing hunger symptoms. And the second, being able to distinguish between hunger and cravings.
According to Medical News Today, appetite is different from hunger. It is different in that appetite is the desire to eat food, while hunger is the biological response to a lack of food.
Regardless, appetite is one of the most dominant factors that influence food choices. Reason being, it can be triggered by a whole host of conditions and situations we encounter virtually every day : stress, boredom, mental health, habit, smell, social occasions and so on.
Without a doubt, taste as it relates to food selection is one of the primary factors that influence food choices, and one that is self-evident.
When a certain food tastes good, we enjoy eating it. When it doesn’t, we don’t.
The challenge is to recognize the fact that we are drawn to highly-palatable foods, namely foods high in sugar, salt and fat.
Typically, the foods that contain these three ingredients are not healthy and require some restraint. This restraint is needed to ensure our bodies are fuelled with wholesome, nutritious foods that help our bodies be healthy.
Conversely, regularly indulging in highly-palatable foods that stimulate the body’s pleasure system is nothing more than instant gratification. Doing so will provide short-term pleasure, while risking long-term harm to our health.
It seems that we are constantly bombarded by messages to eat. We watch TV commercials, cooking shows, Youtube ads, food posts on Instagram and Facebook, and so on, all of which encourage us to eat.
And why is food marketing so commonplace?
Well, because it works. It works very well.
Viewing beautifully prepared and presented food can stimulate our desire to eat. This is another powerful factor that influences our food choices.
Surely, exposure plays a similar role. As a result, it is one of the factors affecting food choices.
The more we are exposed to food, the more likely we will eat it. And this occurs whether or not we are hungry. It’s the out-of-sight, out-of-mind principle reversed.
For this reason many health professionals recommend to people who struggle with food addiction to limit exposure to situations they have trouble resisting.
This is an incredibly important principle, especially at the very beginning of the change-of-lifestyle process.
Have we missed any other factors affecting food choices? If so, please get in touch with us and let us know.
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