Why do we eat the way that we do?

Why do we eat the way that we do?

When thinking about how to manage your weight, do you ever wonder why some advice is easy to follow, yet other times you struggle to make lasting changes? You swear off snacks for a week but then see someone snacking and you make up for lost time. Perhaps the answer is about who you are which is key to successfully adapting a new eating pattern to your current lifestyle.

Published research by Reicks et al.* suggests that how, why, and how often people consume food and beverages may be reflective of our age, lifestyle, gender, or family structure. Considering these influences that determine what and how we eat can help us make changes to our diet that will last.

do-you-eat-on-a-scheduleThe main goal of the IFIC Foundation research published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition, was to describe how often we eat, what we want to accomplish when we eat and drink, and how it relates to age, gender, presence of children in the home, and body mass index. The research design was an online survey of approximately 2700 American adults, age 18-80 years old. The survey was demographically balanced and conducted by a market research panel. Survey questions related to the 6689 eating and drinking occasions that subjects reported having during the prior day.

Some surprising results differed from widely held assumptions about how often and why people consume food and beverages. They suggested that people’s eating habits can differ according to their lifestyle characteristics.  Age appears to be the factor that significantly determines what and why one eats and drinks. Older adults (45-69 years) tend to plan their eating and drinking as part of a meal more than younger respondents. Older adults also appear to depend on routine to trigger their eating and drinking more than younger adults. They suggested that time of day was a more important trigger for them than hunger or thirst.why-do-you-stop-eating

Nutrition experts often discuss moderation in food and beverage consumption. However, what motivates the average person to stop eating is rarely eating a “healthful serving size.” What this research found was that the three main reasons respondents reported for stopping what they were eating was “the food was gone”, “I felt satisfied” followed by “I had eaten enough.” These statements make apparent the need to suggest a guide for what defines a moderate amount.

Associations of eating and drinking patterns with body weight index (BMI) were found to be less reliable than other characteristics. Respondents with BMI greater than 30 were generally less interested in the healthfulness or the nutritional balance of their food and beverage intake than those with a BMI less than 30. An interesting finding was that as BMI increased, respondents were more likely to report watching TV at breakfast.

There’s an important message in this research that can help people who struggle with following diets and managing their body weight. People frequently eat for somewhat unconscious reasons like habit, ending hunger, or simply to enjoy the pleasure of eating. Focusing on what leads you to eat or stop eating can very important to the success of any weight management program.

 *Reicks M, Degeneffe D, Rendahl A, Smith Edge M, Burns K, O'Meara B, Blevins G.J Am Coll Nutr. 2014;33(4):315-27

This piece was originally developed for the Weight Management Matters newsletter by the Weight Management Dietary Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.