What Drives Food Choices

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on August 28, 2013 · 0 comments

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. Research has shown that the most important variables affecting food choices were appeal, health considerations, and cost.

If a food doesn’t taste good few will eat it and this result holds across all income and age groups. Only a few studies have looked at the appeal of food based on its appearance, but they found for young adults this has a strong effect.

Health concerns can be grouped into 2 categories: concern about nutrition and concern about weight. The importance of nutrition – too much sodium, too little fat, no trans fat – was second only to taste when it came to food choices and was not affected by income or education. Nutrition was also more important to women than man and became increasingly important as people got older. This makes sense. 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. And, 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 and microwave meals and disposable utensils the time may be even less. Lack of planning, time, and limited food preparation skills are some of the reasons given for less and less cooking at home.

Regardless of whether we eat out, take-in, or microwave dinner, we want it in a hurry. 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. When meals are made at home we eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and drink more milk. Eating out reverses this trend.

Inexpensive and fast doesn’t have to equal poor selections. A barbecue chicken, picked up on the way home, 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, breaded chicken, French fries and soda.

Give some thought to what drives your food choices.

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