When we reach for a chocolate biscuit or when we decide to order a take away instead of cooking, is it simply a case of what we fancy, or does society play a larger part in determining our food choices?
Dr Sandra Carlisle from the Rowett Institute of Health and Nutrition is currently undertaking a qualitative research study, ‘Understanding Food Choice in Scotland’, and is aiming to provide a better understanding of why we eat what we do and what influences us when choosing our food.
Dr Carlisle explains that there are a number of reasons why such a study is important.
She said: “Disciplines such as nutrition science, economics and psychology have already contributed to a growing body of evidence around food choice. We know from large-scale surveys much about what people buy and eat but we do not yet have a sufficient understanding of why they do this.
“By carrying out in-depth interviews with a comparatively small sample of people from across Aberdeenshire and Glasgow, I am hoping to explore this area more. Rich insights into why people eat what they do can be gained in this way, because it puts people’s ‘food stories’ in the broader context of their lives. Such stories are endlessly fascinating.”
Dr Carlisle’s project looks at the food choices of a range of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, from those spending as little as £10 per week on food, to those with a £200 weekly food budget.
She continued: “Modern society unquestionably plays a role in shaping our food choices. Our increasingly industrialised food system, our individual income, family structure, beliefs and values can all play a part, as do other pressures of modern life, such as long working hours and so on. In turn, our food selections can help to form our identity, our sense of who we are as people. For example, someone who has suffered a heart attack may become extremely focused on eating far more healthily - to the extent that it becomes a key aspect of the way they live their life, and an intrinsic part of their sense of wellbeing.”
The situation in which we eat can also play a huge part when we make certain decisions in the kitchen. Eating is widely perceived in our society as a social activity and one which, ideally, should be enjoyed with others. However, wide sections of modern society now find themselves eating alone, and for some people so the desire and motivation to prepare and cook something appears to fade.
Dr Carlisle commented: “Ironically, given that as consumer society repeatedly tells us that ‘we are worth it’ – that is, spending time and money in looking after ourselves, when it comes to eating well and healthily, some people seem to feel like this cannot apply to them.
“A factor which plays a part in the food choices individuals make is often necessity, because they live on a low income. Issues of food cost can easily trump concerns with health, in this situation. Many people may be existing on just one proper meal a day, and therefore the decision about what to eat may simply be based on what is the most affordable as opposed to what is the healthiest.
“I hope that this study will provide us with much more insight into what leads people to make the choices they do, healthy and otherwise. Given the importance of good nutrition to our physical and mental health, and to our sense of wellbeing in life, this understanding matters a great deal.