person shopping at supermarket

How Do We Decide What To Eat?

What Are the Biggest Influences on Peoples Food Choices?

How do people choose what they eat? Our food decisions are a delicate cocktail of social, health, and hedonic factors that tie together in a complicated knot that’s often hard to untie.

person shopping at supermarket

Fooducate recently wrote an article about what makes low-income people choose healthy food. The article suggested price was a big factor:

A research paper published in Public Health Nutrition posits that price is less of a factor in deciding to buy vegetables and fruits. Rather, it’s the convenient access to quality produce that increased purchases.

I think the truth is that no one really knows what makes people….low income or otherwise…..make the food decisions that they do.

In general the food you eat has to fulfill the following requirements:

  • The taste needs to be palatable
  • Its method of preparation needs to fit within your lifestyle
  • It needs to mold with the social forces governing your life
  • It needs to be healthy (maybe)

Within those confines, there’s room for a lot of variation. Like, a lot.

Lack of Consensus

They pointed out the one study, but there are lot of conflicting stories and nothing adds up to a consensus. Not too long ago there was a popular story in the Los Angelas Times that stated putting grocery stores in the middle of inner-city ghettos didn’t make a scintilla of difference in people’s food choices.  The problem wasn’t that the food was too expensive, it was that no one wanted it to begin with.

I’ve written before that price often influences food choices, but convenience, attitudes, and a variety of peripheral lifestyle factors all play a role.

For example, it’s been demonstrated that people don’t buy fast food because it’s cheap, but because it’s easy. And in the health food arena, buying particular foods is often an act of self-expression moreso than a diligent effort to eat right. After all, the price increase in specially branded “health food” cannot be justified by the health benefits alone.  And why else do you see health food brands make alliances with causes and organizations that have nothing to do with food?

Healthy Living Is A Skill

The food you eat is often about communicating a social signal. Or if you have people with different dietary preferences than you, it can be an act of social conformity.

I think the folks at Fooducate are right about the problem of not knowing what to do with healthy food. To really eat right is not just an act of will power, but a learned skill. You need to learn how to cook and have a few easy recipes that don’t taste like sawdust. And while you don’t have to be a dietician, a little knowledge of the ABC’s of good nutrition certainly helps.

Otherwise, you have the situation they described in their posts. A bunch of vegetables and stuff….and no clue what to do about it.

6 thoughts on “How Do We Decide What To Eat?”

  1. I think for lots of people junk food works like crack the way it creates fleeting sensation of happiness. It increases the serotonin in your brain and gives you a temporary high.


  2. I agree with Miriam on this. However, in order for people to change it will take more than just education. If people are going to change their lifestyle, they need to be in the mindset to change in order for it to be successful. People are often creatures of habit. It is very easy to live on a poor lifestyle simply because it is so convenient. If people for instance are more comfortable with grabbing a bag of chips for a snack than a bag of carrots, they will do what is comfortable and the chips it will be.


    1. I agree Tara that healthy living eventually has to become a habit for it to be successful…but old habits die hard, especially when your social circumstances aren’t working in your favor, ya know?

      I know my best behavior comes out when my lifestyle circumstances are conducive to good health, which is not always the case.

      I personally think the internet might be the innovation that saves us all. Now it’s so easy to find other people with the same goals as you people don’t have to be stuck in health deserts if their social connections are not wellness oriented.


  3. I know from experience that when I changed my eating habits for the better my outlook, health and performance at work and life improved dramatically. Old habits die hard but if you’re determined you can do it.


  4. My dad and I decided to change our health habits after we both got scared stiff when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He was always lax about his health, but getting diagnosed was a splash of cold water on his face, and I changed my habits to provide support. It was the best thing I ever did! We eat and feel better now, and get so much more enjoyment out of enjoying our health than we ever did from our indulgences. It’s brought us so much closer together and am always recommending to my friends that they take a similar turn in their lives.


  5. People stick to bad habits because of their comfort zone. People form emotional relationships with their foods, and many of them are addicted even if they can’t accept it. Leaving your addictions behind is a daunting task for many, so it’s easier just to keep filling yourself up with terrible foods because it provides an emotional rope.


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