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What affects our eating behaviour ?

Have you ever wondered why we eat the foods we do? Or why we gravitate towards certain kinds of food?

Historically our sense of taste (sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami) ensured that we consumed foods that were essential for our survival and avoided foods that were dangerous (rotten or poisonous). However, today our food preferences are a lot more complex and are influenced by our environment, social context, and our cultural & individual experiences. According to Eleanor Grimm ‘eating behaviour is a complex interplay of physiologic, psychological, social and genetic factors that influence meal timing, quantity of food intake, food preference, and food selection’.

Our dietary preferences develop early in life, in fact they are believed to begin in the womb. Exposure to certain flavours during prenatal and postnatal periods have been linked to an increased enjoyment in the infant of these specific flavours during weaning. A study by Mennella found that babies exposed to carrot juice in utero (mothers consumed carrot juice for 3 weeks during their last trimester) and through breast milk (mothers consumed carrot juice during the first 2 months of breastfeeding) consumed more carrots during the weaning period. Some studies have found that breastfed infants have a more diverse food preference compared with infants who were formula fed. It is important to mention that exposure alone is not the only factor contributing to food preferences & eating behaviour. The mother’s diet and the parent’s feeding habits play a significant role in the development of dietary preferences over time.

Key take away: Try and promote healthy eating behaviour whilst pregnant, through breast feeding and through early exposure of a variety of vegetables & fruits.

Another important trend to look into is the ‘nutrition transition’,where people are moving away from traditional diets that were nutrient dense (and rich in fibre) to highly refined, low-fibre diets (processed foods that are rich in sugar, fat and salt). Let’s briefly take look into why this is happening:

  1. Convenience & time scarcity: “Time-scarcity” has been identified as one of the main factors that affect ones food choices. Individuals who see themselves as being short of time try to limit household tasks, and in order to save time choose convenience options instead of traditional home cooked meals. The Indian convenience food market was predicted to reach Rs 1,580 billion by the end of 2017 and is continuing to grow at an alarmingly high rate. Supermarkets and even smaller stores have been flooded with packaged foods that are gaining immense popularity.

  2. Palatableness (taste): Foods rich in fat and sugar are referred to as palatable foods. They have been found to increase feelings of hunger while also reducing the response to satiety signals (feeling full). So the more refined foods we consume the more we will desire these foods, with an increased appetite that results in overeating.

  3. Psychologically affected eating (stress eating, emotional eating): Recent research has shown that emotions such as stress, depression and sadness can lead to ‘comfort eating’ (i.e. increased intake of highly refined and poor quality foods). A number of studies have also found that emotional eating resulted in a higher consumption of sweet energy-dense foods (sweet and high-fat foods such as pastries, desserts, chocolates etc) in both men and women.

As you can see, changing eating behaviour can be very challenging because we have spent a great number of years forming a relationship with and around food. Over time certain associations have been made unconsciously with specific emotions, certain foods, activities, and even certain eating practices. Hence when we want to bring about a change in eating behaviour we must realise that we are dealing with a very complex issue that is deep rooted within us.

The first step is to understand what is driving your need to change; is it a desire to look good or a desire to be healthy or even a desire to feel good? The next step would be to accept whatever you choose and to start being mindful of what you’re putting into your body, and to identify situations that lead you to make poor dietary choices. Pay attention to triggers and/or circumstances such as eating out, get-togethers, working long hours etc that can influence your eating habits. Once you’ve identified these, shift your focus to how you can minimise the effect of these negative influencers. For example; plan what food to carry to work, or plan to eat something healthy before heading out to prevent overeating or make a conscious effort to eat healthy during the week and allow yourself a treat over the weekend.

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