3 Factors That Influence Food Choices
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A person’s taste preferences and food aversions are largely innate, although they can be influenced by many factors throughout life. Likewise, eating habits can work for or against optimal health.
The taste of food and drink is a key determinant of food choice. Nutrient poor foods typically taste sweet, salty and have a fatty mouthfeel whereas nutrient rich foods have complex flavour profiles. Humans are born with innate preferences for certain basic taste qualities and dislikes for others. However, a wide individual variation exists in liking for the different taste qualities. This is related to differences in how energy-poor foods are selected and consumed, as well as to long term food intakes and adverse health outcomes such as obesity.
Various factors influence our perception of the taste of food and drink including the time of day, mood/emotional state, and eating context. Moreover, taste sensitivity and discrimination can vary depending on hunger levels and the temperature of food/drinks (e.g. hot foods/drinks tend to taste sweeter than cold ones).
Family and peer group eating patterns also have an impact on dietary choices. For example, social facilitation – when individuals eat in the presence of others who consistently eat a lot or very little – leads to food mimicry and an increased likelihood of eating a similar quantity and composition of food. Furthermore, low household incomes may hinder an individual from trying a new food out of fear that it will be expensive or not likeable.
Individuals prioritize foods that taste good and are easy to prepare. However, there is a risk of overemphasizing convenience to the point of ignoring other factors such as cost and nutrition. For example, some individuals may choose low-cost food options such as fast-food or packaged products based on convenience alone, without considering the impact of these choices on their health.
In the focus group discussions, participants were asked to discuss their food preferences and reasons for their choice in different hypothetical situation where they had to select a product from a list that varied in level of convenience. They were free to report their thoughts using drawings, mind maps or text.
The results of the structural model analysis indicated that time scarcity, cooking skills, meal preparation confidence, lack of interest in spending physical and mental effort for cooking, familiarity with convenience food and motivation constructs significantly influenced consumers’ intention to purchase and consume convenience food.
The findings suggest that it is important to develop strategies that increase access to affordable healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables. This is especially true for those living in urban areas where fresh produce is typically more expensive than those found in rural regions. It is also crucial to provide people with opportunities to learn the basics of cooking and how to prepare their own meals from scratch, in order to decrease the dependency on convenient food options.
Food choices are not only influenced by personal preferences and dietary restrictions, but also by health and environmental concerns. The quality of diets is impacted by household income and availability of healthy foods, as well as nutritional information and education.
The influence of social class on diet is well documented, with lower socioeconomic groups consuming more fast-food and less fresh fruit and vegetables than higher socioeconomic groups. This is linked to greater risk of obesity and health issues such as heart disease and diabetes.
Eating habits can be influenced by emotional and psychological factors, for example, a desire to achieve a specific body shape. In this case, people may restrict the amount of certain types of foods to lose weight, which can lead to unpleasant side effects such as feeling depressed, anxious or frustrated.
Some individuals may use highly palatable foods to obtain a pleasurable effect, for example, the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and salty snacks that can produce a sensational gratification. Such behaviours can also cause feelings of guilt and shame, which can further lead to unhealthy decisions e.g. following fad diets or skipping meals to reduce calories. This can have long-term implications for physical health, including weight gain and low energy levels.