- Learn how to achieve a healthy diet
What Drives Food Choices Today?
The nutritional value of a food is only one of many factors that affect the dietary choices individuals make. Other factors include:
- Taste, texture, and appearance: Individuals have a wide range of tastes which influence their food choices, leading some to dislike milk and others to hate raw vegetables. Some foods that are very healthy, such as tofu, may be unappealing at first to many people. However, creative cooks can adapt healthy foods to meet most people’s taste.
- Economics: Access to fresh fruits and vegetables may be scant, particularly for those who live in economically disadvantaged or remote areas, where cheaper food options are limited to convenience stores and fast food.
- Early food experiences: People who were not exposed to different foods as children, or who were forced to swallow every last bite of overcooked vegetables, may make limited food choices as adults.
- Habits: It’s common to establish eating routines, which can work both for and against optimal health. Habitually grabbing a fast food sandwich for breakfast can seem convenient, but might not offer substantial nutrition. Yet getting in the habit of drinking an ample amount of water each day can yield multiple benefits.
- Culture: The culture in which one grows up affects how one sees food in daily life and on special occasions.
- Geography: Where a person lives influences food choices. For instance, people who live in Midwestern US states have less access to seafood than those living along the coasts.
- Advertising: The media greatly influences food choice by persuading consumers to eat certain foods.
- Social factors: Any school lunchroom observer can testify to the impact of peer pressure on eating habits, and this influence lasts through adulthood. People make food choices based on how they see others and want others to see them. For example, individuals who are surrounded by others who consume fast food are more likely to do the same.
- Health concerns: Some people have significant food allergies, to peanuts for example, and need to avoid those foods. Others may have developed health issues which require them to follow a low salt diet. In addition, people who have never worried about their weight have a very different approach to eating than those who have long struggled with excess weight.
- Emotions: There is a wide range in how emotional issues affect eating habits. When faced with a great deal of stress, some people tend to overeat, while others find it hard to eat at all.
- Green food/Sustainability choices: Based on a growing understanding of diet as a public and personal issue, more and more people are starting to make food choices based on their environmental impact. Realizing that their food choices help shape the world, many individuals are opting for a vegetarian diet, or, if they do eat animal products, striving to find the most “cruelty-free” options possible. Purchasing local and organic food products and items grown through sustainable products also helps shrink the size of one’s dietary footprint.
- Vegetarian diet: Some people choose to limit consumption of animal foods for a variety of reasons including religious doctrines, health concerns, ecological and animal welfare concerns, or simply because they dislike the taste of meat. There are different types of vegetarians, but a common theme is that vegetarians do not eat meat. Four common forms of vegetarianism are:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: This is the most common form. This type of vegetarian diet includes the animal foods eggs and dairy products.
- Lacto-vegetarian: This type of vegetarian diet includes dairy products but not eggs.
- Ovo-vegetarian: This type of vegetarian diet includes eggs but not dairy products.
- Vegan: This type of vegetarian diet does not include dairy, eggs, or any type of animal product or animal by-product.
To counter the health consequences related to poor diet and physical inactivity today, we need to consider all of the above factors and do a better job educating and supporting healthier food and activity choices on a daily basis for all.
Achieving a healthy diet is a matter of balancing the quality and quantity of food eaten.
There are five key factors that make up a healthful diet:
- A diet must be adequate, by providing sufficient amounts of each essential nutrient, as well as fiber and adequate calories.
- A balanced diet results when you do not consume one nutrient at the expense of another, but rather get appropriate amounts of all nutrients.
- Calorie control is necessary so that the amount of energy you get from the nutrients you consume equals the amount of energy you expend during your day’s activities.
- Moderation means not eating to the extremes, neither too much nor too little.
- Variety refers to consuming different foods from within each of the food groups on a regular basis.
A healthy diet is one that favors whole foods. As an alternative to modern processed foods, a healthy diet focuses on “real” fresh whole foods that have been sustaining people for generations. Whole foods supply the needed vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber that are essential to good health. Commercially prepared and fast foods are often lacking nutrients and often contain inordinate amounts of sugar, salt, saturated and trans fats, all of which are associated with the development of diseases such as atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses. A balanced diet is a mix of food from the different food groups (vegetables, legumes, fruits, grains, protein foods, and dairy).
An adequate diet is one that favors nutrient-dense foods. Nutrient-dense foods are defined as foods that contain many essential nutrients per calorie. Nutrient-dense foods are the opposite of “empty-calorie” foods, such as sugary carbonated beverages, which are also called “nutrient-poor.” Nutrient-dense foods include fruits and vegetables, lean meats, poultry, fish, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains. Choosing more nutrient-dense foods will facilitate weight loss, while simultaneously providing all necessary nutrients.
Balance the foods in your diet. Achieving balance in your diet entails not consuming one nutrient at the expense of another. For example, calcium is essential for healthy teeth and bones, but too much calcium will interfere with iron absorption. Most foods that are good sources of iron are poor sources of calcium, so in order to get the necessary amounts of calcium and iron from your diet, a proper balance between food choices is critical. Another example is that while sodium is an essential nutrient, excessive intake may contribute to congestive heart failure and chronic kidney disease in some people. Remember, everything must be consumed in the proper amounts.
Eat in moderation. Moderation is crucial for optimal health and survival. Eating nutrient-poor foods each night for dinner will lead to health complications. But as part of an otherwise healthful diet and consumed only on a weekly basis, this should not significantly impact overall health. It’s important to remember that eating is, in part, about enjoyment and indulging with a spirit of moderation. This fits within a healthy diet.
Monitor food portions. For optimum weight maintenance, it is important to ensure that energy consumed from foods meets the energy expenditures required for body functions and activity. If not, the excess energy contributes to gradual, steady accumulation of stored body fat and weight gain. In order to lose body fat, you need to ensure that more calories are burned than consumed. Likewise, in order to gain weight, calories must be eaten in excess of what is expended daily.
Variety involves eating different foods from all the food groups. Eating a varied diet helps to ensure that you consume and absorb adequate amounts of all essential nutrients required for health. One of the major drawbacks of a monotonous diet is the risk of consuming too much of some nutrients and not enough of others. Trying new foods can also be a source of pleasure—you never know what foods you might like until you try them.
Developing a healthful diet can be rewarding, but be mindful that all of the principles presented must be followed to derive maximal health benefits. For instance, introducing variety in your diet can still result in the consumption of too many high-calorie, nutrient poor foods and inadequate nutrient intake if you do not also employ moderation and calorie control. Using all of these principles together will promote lasting health benefits.
University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Food Science and Human Nutrition Program: Allison Calabrese, Cheryl Gibby, Billy Meinke, Marie Kainoa Fialkowski Revilla, and Alan Titchenal