Food Choice Influencing Factors

I A K Draper, University of Westminster, London, UK © 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Food choice is about why we eat the foods we do. This would appear to be a simple and relatively straightforward matter, but human food choice is a complex phenomenon, difficult to predict, and its analysis is not a simple affair. Many factors influence our food choice, and these encompass biological, psychological, economic, social, and cultural influences. These all operate on different aspects of food choice and vary in terms of their relative strength and influence from person to person and context to context. That said, it is a topic of public health importance for two broad reasons. First, it is important to understand the etiology of those nutritional disorders that can be attributed to dysfunctional patterns of dietary intake. This applies to both deficiency disorders, such as vitamin A deficiency, that are due to inadequate nutrient intakes and diet-related chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease, that are partly attributable to overconsumption or an imbalanced intake of certain foods and/or nutrients. Second, it is important to reduce morbidity and mortality from these disorders via interventions, such as health education, that are designed to either increase or decrease consumption of specific foods and nutrients. The successful achievement of these objectives relies on an understanding and manipulation of the factors that influence food choice, and there is currently much emphasis on the need for health promotion to be more 'evidence-based.' Food choice, like other so-called health behaviors, is thus an important determinant of health and nutritional status and has been the focus of much research.

One of the significant features of this research is that many different theoretical frameworks drawn from both the natural and the social sciences have been used to study the phenomenon of food choice. These derive from many academic disciplines that include biology and physiology, psychology, social psychology, geography, economics, history, sociology, anthropology, political science, and even philosophy. These all approach the study of food choice in very different ways and identify different factors that influence it. This in part derives from the differing ways in which the phenomenon of food choice and the act of eating have been conceptualized. As noted previously, the question of why we eat what we do is deceptively straightforward, but eating, like sex, presents an ontological or analytical problem: Is eating a purely biological act founded on natural need and determined by physiological mechanisms and whose primary function is the meeting of nutritional requirements or is it a form of intentional social behaviour driven by social, psychological, or economic factors and that may serve nonnutritional ends, such as maintaining social relationships or expressing identity? The particular way in which the nature of food and eating are conceptualized inevitably leads to the identification of different types of factors that are seen to influence it. These methodological differences are compounded in that food choice can also be seen as the outcome of a number of different processes or phases ranging from food production and processing to shopping and finally the act of eating or consumption. Again, different academic disciplines have tended to address different steps within this chain and the way in which they impact on the choice of individuals, households, or wider social groups. Finally, the word 'choice' is somewhat problematic; it is rarely explicitly defined, but it is variously used to refer to acts of food selection that range from unconscious behavioral responses to physiological cues and conscious acts of decision making.

This lack of commensurability in research methods, definition of terms, and the actual object of study thus makes it difficult to review and summarize research findings from across different disciplines regarding the different types of factors that influence food choice. However, the main categories of influence on human food choice can be crudely divided into biological and behavioral factors, psychological factors, economic factors, and social and cultural factors. Within each of these categories, particular factors may be either positive or negative influences in that they may act to encourage or discourage choice of particular food items. These categories of influence are discussed in relation to the theoretical frameworks with which they have been studied and with a brief examination of their explanatory value is given.

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