Nutrition is an integral component of our life. But, have you ever wondered what dictates our diet and food choices? The truth is, we don’t think about this subject that much. We should, though! The best way to make healthy diet adjustments is to understand all mechanisms involved in our nutrition. Read on to learn more about the most common factors that influence the diet choices you make.
1. Satiety and hunger
Satiety is a cessation of physical hunger sensation or a feeling of fullness after the ingestion of food. Hunger is defined as a physical sensation, often painful and uncomfortable, resulting from insufficient intake of dietary energy.
Both satiety and hunger are physiological needs. As such, they act as basic determinants of diet-related choices we make. In order to survive, remain healthy, and function properly, humans need energy and nutrients. We obtain them through food. Responsibility for regulation of the balance between hunger, food intake, and appetite stimulation is in the domain of the central nervous system (CNS).
A study of slimmers, people actively working to lose weight, and slimmers found all subjects considered hunger a physical sensation that influences behavioral responses. Some of the most common responses to hunger were selecting convenience food options or increased volume of consumed food.
For people who were trying to slim down, i.e., slimmers, these hunger-related actions were perceived as damaging to their efforts. To these subjects, the sensation of hunger could propel a spiral of emotions leading to the belief their weight-loss effort is futile. Slimmers believed hunger was to be avoided, and they worked actively to achieve that goal.
The most common method of curbing hunger was incorporating planned snacks between meals. All participants in the study, published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, considered satiety beneficial. Satiety allowed them to control eating and made it easier to manage the hedonic urge to eat. Subjects considered carbohydrate-based foods the most satiating.
What the above mentioned study revealed is that satiating foods reduce overall energy intake. At the same time, satiety exhibited a positive impact on eating behavior and allowed people to have more control of how much food they consumed. That’s why satiety is a major factor in achieving weight loss (1).
Not all macronutrients generate the same strength of satiety signals. For reference sake, the term macronutrient refers to protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Compared to other macronutrients, fat has the weakest impact on satiety. As a result, fat could lead to passive overconsumption, i.e., the increase in energy intake influenced by a high-fat, energy-dense food environment (2). On the other hand, carbs exhibit an intermediate effect on satiety, while protein has the biggest influence (3).
When it comes to hunger and satiety, the energy density of diet plays an important role as well. Generally speaking, a diet with low energy density provides more satiety than its high-density counterparts.
Portion size may act on satiety signals too. Many people consume excess calories because they are unaware of appropriate portion sizes.
As seen throughout this section, hunger and satiety influence your food choices. This is a broad subject, but it is safe to say physiological mechanisms are involved, and they may have a major impact on your eating habits.
2. Taste of food
Taste is defined as a perception that results from gustatory nerve stimulation (4). Not only does taste include the flavor of food, but its smell, texture, and appearance too. All these are sensory aspects, and they have a major influence on food behavior. They particularly influence spontaneous diet or food choices.
You see, taste influences our food and diet choices from an early age. In childhood, we develop a love for sweet and delicious foods and an aversion to bitter foods. Basically, our taste preferences change and evolve throughout our lives. As a result, we choose food and diet accordingly.
A study from the journal Appetite revealed 82% of 1306 participants rated taste as highly important, but they also had a poorer quality of diet. They were more likely to consume lower amounts of fruits and vegetables. At the same time, subjects who considered taste highly important were more likely to eat foods abundant in fat, salt, sugar, and other unhealthy choices. Scientists concluded the study explaining the importance we place on taste exhibits a significant impact on dietary behavior, food choice, and consumption (5).
Evidence shows pleasantness is the main factor behind liking and consuming certain foods (6). More precisely, we tend to eat foods we find delicious and tasty while avoiding meals we don’t find pleasant.
It’s also useful to mention that the taste profile of energy-poor foods is naturally appealing to consumers. Even though liking food entirely (smell, appearance, and taste) plays a big role in food selection, it can be tricky to connect the long-term food intake of adults to their taste-related preferences. The innate preference for sweet and salty foods can make it more complicated to move a typical consumer away from foods that are low in nutrients. Repeated exposure to certain foods can change taste preferences and subsequent diet choices (7).
3. Food palatability
Palatability is the hedonic evaluation of oro-sensory food stimuli in standardized conditions. In other words, palatability is proportional to the pleasure you experience when you’re eating specific foods. For many people, food is not just a source of energy and nourishment. Instead, it is also a source of pleasure.
People assess the palatability of food through its sensory characteristics such as appearance, odor, taste, temperature, texture, and sound even. Studies show palatability of food, particularly pleasantness of taste, is the most significant factor that influences preferences and selection of foods. Macronutrient content contributes to palatability. Generally speaking, foods higher in sugar and fat are more palatable (8).
Higher palatability of food also increases food intake (9). That said, it is unclear whether food palatability contributes to appetite after consumption.
4. Stress and mood
Mental health influences our physical health and wellbeing. It also contributes to the diet or food choices we make as well as other aspects of our lifestyle. Since everyone experiences or deals with stress differently, individual differences apply in its impact on food choice too. While some people may eat less when under stress, others consume more food.
Psychosomatic Medicine published a study that showed stress didn’t alter overall food intake or appetite, but it stressed emotional eaters consuming more high-fat foods. They ate more sweets and energy-dense meals compared to non-emotional and unstressed eaters (10).
A different study explains the neural networks that subserve stress and feeding form in early developmental stages. Back in time, during human evolution, food was quite scarce, but people had frequent life-threatening stressors. Food served for adaptive purposes mainly. It was just a “tool” for survival. The situation is different today as food is more abundant and easily accessible. In these circumstances, the proliferation of stressors leads to non-homeostatic feeding, i.e., consuming food without metabolic purpose or need. Many people don’t eat food to survive anymore, but because they cope with the stress that way.
Ongoing daily stressors may keep a person’s stress system in a chronically activated condition. These stressors could change brain motivation/reward pathways associated with the desire to consume hyper-palatable foods. This could generate changes that lead to weight gain and accumulation of fat mass. In response to weight gain, adaptations to the neuroendocrine, metabolic, and neuronal pathways may occur. As a result, these changes influence food preferences, cravings, and consumption in times of stress (11).
In a nutshell, stress influences diet and food choices through several mechanisms. These mechanisms include motivational differences, physiological and practical changes. The motivational differences refer to decreased concern about weight management. Physiological changes could be reduced or increased appetite due to stress. Here, practical changes refer to meal preparation, food availability, and changes in eating opportunities.
Stress is not the only mental health factor that influences food choices. Mood, in general, can do that. We could say the relationship between mood and food is a two-way relationship. Food can influence our mood, and vice versa can apply too. Eating a meal reduces irritability and arousal while increasing positive affect and calmness. That said, these effects depend on the size of the meal and composition that is close to the person’s needs and expectations. For instance, unusual meals such as unhealthy or too small may affect your mood negatively (12).
What we can learn here is that our food or diet choice is emotionally or mood-driven (13). Just like in times of stress, our food choices often depend on how we feel, e.g., if we are sad, upset, irritated, or happy.
5. Meal pattern
Not everyone has the same meal pattern. As much as we try to eat our meals regularly and at the same time every day, the reality is that eating occasions and motivations for meals may differ from one day to another. Besides timing and frequency of meals, your meal pattern also includes the typical foods you consume.
Evidence confirms meal patterns with the omission of breakfast or both breakfast and lunch leads to developing unhealthy lifestyle behaviors and poor food choices. These choices lead to inadequate intake of nutrients (14).
Our meal pattern often dictates the diet choices we make in several ways. For example, when we’re home and have enough time to prepare food, we will opt for healthier meals. On the other hand, when not home and it’s lunch or dinner time, people are inclined to go to fast-food places or restaurants where they will not eat healthy meals. The same happens with grocery shopping. If you’re hungry or skip a meal, your shopping cart may consist of unhealthier foods primarily. But if you’re satiated, you will make wiser choices.
6. Social influence
Social influence is defined as making intentional or unintentional efforts to alter your behavior in order to meet the demands and expectations of the environment. Almost all aspects of our life and behavior are influenced by the society around us. Food intake is among those aspects. Social influence on food choices can be direct or indirect. An example of a direct social influence is through buying food, e.g., your parents or spouse buy vegetables (or maybe something unhealthy), and you consume them. Indirect social influence would be learning from someone else’s behavior (15). These influences are quite common. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that someone from our environment influenced our food intake. In some cases, we are inspired by someone’s food choice and unintentionally start consuming that food.
Even when you are eating alone, your food choice was likely influenced by someone else. This is not shocking if we bear in mind we develop our habits and preferences through interaction with other people. Keep in mind we eat differently when we’re alone or in company with other people (16). People are more likely to follow or adhere to some diet or eating norm if they perceive it relevant from the social aspect. Relevant food norms are set by people with whom we relate or are similar to us. In other words, we are more likely to choose foods if people we like eat them as well.
For this reason, social support for persons who are trying to lose weight is crucial. Successful weight loss requires diet changes, but doing so can be quite a challenge for a person who got used to eating certain foods. Without social support, it can be more difficult. That said, social support shouldn’t be verbal only. People around that person should strive to modify their diet as well.
Other factors that influence food choice.
As seen above, factors that affect our food and diet choice are numerous. They are based on every aspect of life. But they’re not the only factors that influence your eating behavior. Others include:
- Cost and accessibility – although we’d like to believe otherwise, a great deal of our diets/food choices depend on the prices of food. People on a low budget have limited options and usually choose unhealthier foods because they meet their budget range. A bigger budget allows for more options when grocery shopping. The same applies to accessibility.
- Knowledge – how much you know about food influences your choices. Various myths and beliefs about food are lurking around. Sometimes inadequate knowledge can lead to wrong food or diet choices.
- Culture – almost the entire life of a person is influenced by their culture, to some extent. This is particularly evident in the food choices we make
If you have ever wondered why to choose certain foods and diets, this post gave you the answers. As you can see, there is no one specific factor. Multiple factors are involved, and, in most cases, the combination of them influences the food choices we make. To make healthier food choices, we need to learn as much as possible about food. It also helps to make a healthier diet change with someone else, e.g., with your friend. That way, you can motivate and influence one another. Our food preferences may change throughout our lives, so it’s always good to experiment with different meals and ingredients.