Why We Choose What We Eat

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on May 1, 2013 · 1 comment

The American food supply is plentiful, diverse, affordable, and offers high quality food. If that is the case everyone should be making healthy food choices and be well fed. Instead we are a nation whose waistline is growing and our overall health is decreasing. Why aren’t Americans making better food choices?

Food choices are affected by many variables – personal taste, health considerations, economics, and environmental factors. If a food doesn’t taste good few people will eat it and this result holds across all income and age groups.

Health concerns can be grouped into 2 categories: concern about nutrition and concern about weight. The importance of nutrition – too much sodium and fat, and no trans fat – is second only to taste when it came to food choices and is not affected by income or education. Nutrition is more important to women than man and becomes increasingly important as people got older. This makes sense. In most home, women are still the gatekeepers of the family food supply and more health concerns occur as we age. The importance of weight control as a food selection factor is not affected by income, but is more important to women, older individuals and African Americans. Those interested in weight control ate more fruits and vegetables and those not interested ate more fast food and cheese.

Time and money are major factors in food selection. Americans love quick, cheap, tasty food. Over 90% of us eat food every day that was not made at home. Though eating in restaurants has declined, eating in the car is on the upswing. With a drive-thru on every corner this makes sense. You don’t even have to leave your car to have a meal, coffee or ice cream. Driving has turned into a mobile feast. The foods we purchase away from home often have more calories, fat, sodium and less whole grains, fruits and vegetables than meals made at home.

In 1965, Americans averaged 44 minutes a day preparing meals and 21 minutes cleaning up. By 1995, we spent only 27 minutes preparing foods and 4 minutes cleaning up. Today with take-out, microwave meals, and disposable utensils the time may be even less. Lack of planning, time, and food preparation skills are some of the reasons given for less and less cooking at home.

Americans don’t waste precious time eating, averaging slightly over an hour a day. And, we rarely eat as a family. Over half of teens surveyed reported eating no family meals in the last week. And when families eat together they often watch TV during meals. Eating in front of the TV increased the likelihood that more pizza, soda and snack foods will be eaten and less fruits and vegetables.

Food in the U.S. is affordable. Americans spend approximately 10% of their income on food, down from 14% in 1970. Food choices are also convenient. Inexpensive and fast doesn’t have to equal poor selections. A rotisserie chicken, picked up on the way home, plus a bagged salad topped with lowfat dressing, and store-bought, microwave, mashed potatoes eaten as a family, with the TV turned off, is a much better choice than fried chicken, French fries and soda.

Give some thought to what drives your food choices.

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