Why do we choose to eat what we do?

The food we eat is actually far from simple. Our thoughts, feelings and choices are often swayed by hundreds of influences, some of which run in parallel, and others which conflict. In our lessons we constantly speak about mindful eating, but what does that even mean? Quite simply, we consider this to be aware of the foods we have eaten throughout the day and making conscious decisions on what we are about to eat in the future. Below we have looked at some of those influences that make us pick up the biscuits or head to the shops for that chocolate kick.

Availability: Most people shop at the supermarkets for convenience and the range of choices. This will influence the types of foods we eat as it is easier to buy chopped onions instead of the whole vegetable, or buying a ready made lasagne instead of making it from scratch. We can also explore other places, e.g greengrocers, online, butchers, allotments where we can buy food.

Seasonality: With supermarkets providing all year around access to foods we have lost the knowledge about what foods are seasonal. Summer fruits like strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are available all year round fruits now so knowing what fruits and vegetables are in season means we can buy them at their best and potentially save us money if there is an over demand for them. When foods are in season in the UK, we tend to buy those produced in the UK meaning less impact on the environment, which is a better choice.

Want and need: Taking a step back to understand why we want a food/drink is important. Is this what we want (most of the time, yes) or what we actually need? By listening to our thoughts and feelings is a good way to determine this. We might crave a type of food for a reason, after we have just eaten three courses for dinner, so do we just want or need the food? Challenging these thoughts is a good way to apply mindful eating.

Cost: Foods are different prices even though they are similar in product. Organic foods are more expensive than non organic, free range eggs are more expensive than caged eggs, some peanut butters change in price also. By using different places to shop and/or understanding the justification on the price differences enables us to make better decisions so we can save money. Generally the cheaper foods are the most processed, meaning they have higher amounts of salt, fat and/or sugar in them. Even if we are on a budget, checking nutritional information is a good skill to compare a range of foods that helps with choosing healthier options.

Peer pressure: When our friends go to the shops and buy chocolate bars and crisps, or when we go to the cinema and people we are with buy large popcorn and drinks, are we thinking about these foods in relation to our health or just because other people are buying them and we want them? By educating others around the information we know, they can make decisions for their health or the environment, not because other people are doing it.

Hunger: When we are hungry, hormones are sent to our brain to acknowledge this. While in this state of hunger, we can opt for foods high in fat, salt and/or sugar as they are cheap and readily available. Eating little and often is a good approach to ensure we do not go long periods without food. If we are hungry, eating sugary foods are not the best choice of food as they are digested quickly and can increase our blood sugar levels sharply, potentially causing us to feel tired later on.

Mood: When we feel anxious, depressed or worried, people can turn to eating as a comfort. Choosing the right foods is important in these situations as it can lead to overeating and potentially create unhealthy food habits. It is well known that when our mood is low, we tend to crave foods that are high in fat, salt and/or sugar because of the satisfaction it gives us.

Skills: Being able to know how to prepare and cook foods is important. Children will not necessarily have these skills at primary school age, however parents/guardians having these skills makes a significant difference. Trying new foods and asking questions on how foods are made is a good way to start in the kitchen.

Time: Usually people will eat three meals a day and have snacks in between meals. Thinking about what foods we have eaten throughout the day and what foods we will be eating later, e.g. Thursday is always lasagne, will give us the knowledge to again build our food group knowledge in line with the Eatwell Guide. Having three meals a day is not a set in stone way to eat and doesn’t work for everyone so it can be changed to suit their needs.

Below are some recommendations to help with better shopping habits not only for our health, but for the environment also.

Country of origin: Similar to the seasonality point, where food comes from has a significant impact on the environment. Apples are commonly grown in the UK, however supermarkets and shops sell apples from South Africa, New Zealand and Chile to help with stock levels. If we can think about the food miles involved in the supply chain we can choose more local, sustainable foods to eat that are better for the environment.

Packaging: Most foods now are presented in plastic or other materials, some recyclable, some not. We understand that unrecyclable plastics are contributing towards the increased landfill sites, and the reason why shops sell foods (mainly fruit and vegetables in this case) in plastic is for us to buy more of them. Do we really need to buy 8 onions in a packet when we need only 2? Until food producers start to change the way they present their foods/drinks, and use recyclable plastic or card/paper, etc, we should opt for loose fruit and vegetables or other alternatives like no plastic shops if possible. It will be difficult to find nutritional information in these circumstances, however by developing your knowledge of the foods you are eating will make these choices easier.

Knowledge: Similarly to the skills point, the knowledge over the nutrition of the foods will play a big part in why we choose them. Knowing what food goes into what food group (e.g. carbohydrates, proteins, etc) will allow us to build up our nutrition knowledge of the Eatwell Guide and the proportions we eat them in. If we have eaten lots of carbohydrates in one day, having a pizza may not be the best choice for dinner.

Self control: When we attend events like birthdays, BBQ’s and other events where food is readily available, we tend to eat more than we need, eat food just because it’s there, and eat unhealthier foods, e.g. processed food. We encourage children and people not to shy away from these occasions but be aware of what your body is telling you, and eat/drink at events in moderation.

Community: Even though the local greengrocer or butcher is more expensive, you are paying for a number of things. The quality of the product tends to be better than the supermarket as it has not been produced on an industrial scale, and the knowledge of the shop owner will be able to provide more information about where the food has come from. The more local the food and lesser the journey to shop, the more nutritional the food is also. Furthermore, you will be supporting local businesses, and if you become a regular customer, discounts might even be an added bonus for special events.