Studies on determinants of dietary behavior

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Research on determinants of dietary behavior is not as developed as research on other health behaviors, such as smoking and alcohol consumption. There is no clear conceptual framework. The few studies carried out give an ad hoc impression.

One of the possible explanations for this is the earlier-mentioned complexity of the concept of dietary behavior. In addition, until recently the knowledge acquired in studies of other health behaviors had not been applied to dietary behavior: many studies on dietary behavior focus on just one determinant, such as knowledge and attitude. Also, many studies have been carried out on special subjects, such as athletes. Finally, it seems that a practical application of the study results (e.g., the study results in points of impact for an intervention) was not the leading motive among the majority of the researchers. Usually, the relationship with the problem is not clear.

The results of several studies on the relationship between one or more of the above-mentioned determinants and specific dietary behaviors will be described in the following.

In one research project, the effects of attitude, social influence, and knowledge (of product composition) on the consumption of meat, meat products, butter, and milk, were examined. The attitude towards these products was found to be a better predictor of actual consumption of the four products than social influence. The behaviors did not show a relationship with knowledge.

Studies on salt intake and consumption of skimmed, low-fat, and whole milk also showed attitude to be a stronger determinant than social influence. A positive attitude towards salt intake appeared to be primarily determined by the perceived advantage that food tastes better if it contains salt. In the case of milk, considerations of taste, nutritional value and suitability for a specific purpose, like making pudding, primarily determined the attitude. Financial considerations played no role at all. On the other hand, the opinions of family members strongly affected the choice of the milk type.

The frequency of consumption of ice cream, sweet yogurt and soda has been reported to depend more on taste considerations and opinions of others than on perceived health advantages or disadvantages of the behaviors.

The preferences for different kinds of meat were studied among elderly people (age 65 to 80). The respondents were asked to value 4 product characteristics of 11 kinds of meat. The characteristics were:

- sensoric quality (good taste, juicy, nice smell, nice appearance)

- amount of fat and unhealthiness (bad for health, bad for coronary heart diseases, overweight)

- exclusiveness (for special occasions, for the weekends, exclusive, expensive)

- convenience in preparing (short preparation time, unsuitable to prepare for more than one day).

The preference for the different kinds of meat could be explained for 16%, 14%, 13%, and 8% by the respective perceived product characteristics. There were, however, differences between preference and actual consumption.

In another study, mothers of pre-school children were interviewed. The responses of working-class mothers showed that taste was the most important determining factor for the choice of food in their families. In the case of middle-class mothers, however, health considerations were very important.

In a study on food choice in canteens, employees were asked prior to lunch which attitude and social considerations would play a role in their choice of lunch. The employees answered that prior to lunch they were guided by advantages such as taste, health and convenience. Behavior and opinion of the social environment were not very important. Afterwards, the first three considerations, and especially health considerations, appeared to be not so important in the actual choice of lunch. Social influences (friends chose the same lunch; friends said I should take this lunch) were relatively more important.

Further, the effects of experience with a food product, knowledge of nutrients, and several positive and negative aspects, such as taste, satiation, health and price on among other things, the consumption of milk, whole wheat bread, margarine and salads have been studied. Taste was found to be the most important determinant of all dietary behaviors. Health considerations were relatively more important for the elderly than for young people, as also shown in other studies. Finally, the results of a study on the determinants of dietary behavior in children showed that health considerations hardly influence children's dietary behavior at all. The same applied to financial considerations. However, taste considerations and the influence of the social environment, especially the behavior of the parents, were very strong determinants.

It has already been mentioned that, according to the theoretical model, socio-demo-graphic factors have an (indirect) influence on behavior. This has been studied for some specific dietary behaviors.

Household income does not strongly affect the consumption of milk, bread, and eggs. The consumption of meat, fish, fresh vegetables, snacks, candies, whole wheat bread, and skimmed milk, however, was positively related to income. Larger families consume relatively less fresh vegetables and fresh fruit. Households with a highly educated mother consume more fruit, vegetables, milk products, meat, game, and fish than households with a less well-educated woman. Becoming older does not result in major changes in the choice of food products. However, the total energy intake decreases. No real differences between men and women in dietary behavior have been found. Women eat less, but not less varied food. In general, the interindividual differences in dietary behavior can only be partly explained by socio-demographic variables. Some studies have shown that, indeed, socio-demographic variables influence behavior indirectly through attitude or social influence, for example:

- health considerations have more influence on the dietary behavior of elderly people than on that of younger people;

- women, from higher socio-economic classes and ranging from 26 to 45 years of age have a more negative attitude towards the consumption of meat, meat products, butter, and milk than others.

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