Have you ever really thought about it before? Why do we eat? It is not always because our bodies send us a signal that it requires fuel for daily activity. If it were, no one would be overweight, because we would know when to eat and when to stop. If the need to eat were purely biological, we likely would eat healthful foods, knowing that the body needed certain nutrients to survive.
Each day, several times a day, we are presented with a variety of “food opportunities”. People decide what to eat based on multiple factors. As they say, knowledge is power, so knowing why you eat is the first step toward creating a better, healthier diet.
Of course, when faced with two food choices, say rice cakes or chocolate cakes, most people will go with the one that tastes the best. But for each person this is very individual. Some people have a sweet tooth, and some prefer a salty snack. Some people love hot and spicy foods, while some people can only tolerate mild. Some research indicates that much of our food preferences are influenced by genetics, but obviously environment has an influence. If you grew up in the South, for example, you probably choose grits over cream of wheat for breakfast in the morning.
Have you ever been faced with a bowl of fruit (for example) and always go for the apple? Or perhaps you always have cereal for breakfast each morning, or you always eat certain foods together – like meat loaf and mashed potatoes (one of my favorite combinations). Some foods are selected out of habit and not really given much thought. Eating familiar foods can also be a source of comfort, but keep in mind that eating a variety of food is the best way to ensure you receive all (or most) of the essential vitamins and minerals.
Social events almost always involve food. When you call friends for a get-together, isn’t it almost always centered on food somehow? Many people have a difficult time losing weight during the holidays, for example, because Thanksgiving and Christmas meals usually involve large family dinners. Even sad events may involve food – a southern tradition when someone passes away is for people to provide the family with meals for several days. The key for social situations is to have a strategy for how you will eat once you are there.
Availability, Convenience and Economy
Especially in today’s economy, people may make food choices based on cost. (Brand name or generic? Do I have a coupon?) Buying foods in certain seasons may affect your food choices. Strawberries in the spring cost about half as much as strawberries in the winter, for example, so budget-conscious shoppers may not get enough fresh vitamin C foods in the winter. People also consider convenience when making purchases, especially busy families with working parents. Fast food and packaged foods are common during chaotic days; however the health implications of these types of food can void the time and money savings.
Positive and Negative Associations
Have you noticed that when you experience an upset stomach after eating a food that it may be some time before you separate the negative feelings from that food? For example, if you get food poisoning from a tuna sandwich (as I did), even just the smell of fish may bring back the memory of being sick. Foods are also associated with positive emotions, like the smell of hot cocoa brings back fond winter memories of ski trips or coconut makes you think of the beach.
One of the most common reasons people give for overeating is that the food brings them emotional comfort. People eat out of stress, depression, to relieve boredom, or to fill a void. Unfortunately, this reaction to food can lead to excess calorie intake and obesity. It is best to disassociate food as your “friend” in these cases and deal with the actual issue at hand.
Spiritual beliefs can lead to particular food choices, or the avoidance of certain foods. Muslims, for example, do not eat pork, and some strict Jewish people follow Kosher dietary laws, including the separation of meat and milk. Other belief systems can also lead to certain food choices, such as those who value the lives of animals may decide to become vegetarian, or those who are environmentally conscious will choose only organic or locally grown foods. As long as the dietary practice isn’t dangerous, such as long fasting periods or eating foods that could be toxic, these choices can make you feel fulfilled and probably more likely to follow a healthier lifestyle overall.
We often eat foods that we believe will lead us to a particular body shape, such as low calorie foods for weight loss or high protein foods for body-building. When planned appropriately for optimal nutrition, dietary choices to reach a goal can be beneficial to health. However, sometimes choices can be based on faddism, such as the latest weight loss trend (which hardly ever works, by the way), or could be a symptom of an eating disorder, such as anorexia. These can be harmful and lead to malnutrition.
Nutrition and Health
Of course, food is also chosen based on its nutritional value, particularly for someone with a health condition such as choosing appropriate carbohydrates in diabetes or unsaturated fats in heart disease. Planning a well-balanced meal is also important for children, who need a wide range of nutrients for optimal growth.