The answer to the question “Why do we eat?” seems an obvious one—to obtain the energy we need to support our everyday activities and, ultimately, promote our survival. However, many of our modern day food choices suggest another answer—one that actually stands to threaten our health and wellbeing. Many times, the reason we eat has less to do with sustenance and more to do with taste. Moreover, our daily food choices are influenced by a variety of other factors including the social situations we find ourselves in, our budgets, sleep schedules, and stress levels, as well as the amount of time we have to prepare and eat a meal. A number of psychological factors also influences our eating habits.
Factors that influence our eating may be divided as follows:
Hunger is an urge or need to eat food, generated by physiological signals, such as empty stomach, low blood sugar level or depleted fat storage. But appetite or desire to continue eating may remain even after the need has been satisfied. Usually, it’s hunger that drives us to eat but the lack of hunger doesn’t necessarily prevent us from eating. Eating certain foods, especially in excess, can produce the opposite effect of sustaining life by compromising our health. Overeating and obesity are on the rise in both the United States and around the world
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Sensory characteristics of food
The basic biology underlying food intake is closely linked to pleasure. Since food is necessary for survival, eating, especially when hungry, is inherently reinforcing. However, eating can be reinforcing even when it is not driven by a caloric deficit. This is why we continue to eat past the point of satiation Appearance, flavor, taste, aroma and texture of food stimulate our senses and may increase our desire to eat it. Regular exposure to tasty food stimulates appetite. The large diversity of food also increases appetite. Eating the same food all the time will inevitably result in boredom.
A quick comparison between the food landscape of our ancestors and the current environment shows dramatic changes on both sides of the energy balance equation (energy expended vs. energy consumed). In more primitive times, hunters and gatherers foraged for vegetation and hunted animals to eat. They worked hard and expended energy to obtain foods that were not typically calorically dense. As a result, their energy expenditure was more closely balanced with their energy intake. Advances in agriculture and modern farming techniques have provided the opportunity to grow massive quantities of food with far less effort than before. Our immediate food environment, consisting of easily available, tasty, cheap and energizing meals is probably strongly influencing modern people whose energy consumption exceeds their energy requirement. The food industry creates and markets food and beverage products that are engineered to be both desirable and inexpensive. Such environmental influences may even suppress biological signals of hunger and satiety.
The most powerful influences in the surrounding food environment are, thus, the availability of food around the clock, as well as its diversity and tastiness. Whether your food is at hand or a few steps away, also plays its role. The amount of consumed food also depends on the quantities of it at home, e.g a full refrigerator after shopping.
Another environmental factor to be considered is watching TV since more than often it’s accompanied by eating. Foods rich in sugar, salt and fat are advertised on TV, distorting our conception of the nutritional value of those items. Ads mostly emphasize our psychological and emotional needs, instead of physiological.
The larger the company in which we eat, the more we tend to eat. Also, people usually eat more among their family than among strangers. Cultural context, attitudes towards food and eating, norms and habits prevailing in the society – all these influence our eating patterns, as well as overeating. Social factors that influence eating are religion, ethics, social standing and wealth, interpersonal relations and politics.
Religion and ethics
Food and beverages have a symbolic meaning in the rituals and ceremonies of many religions. Following a religion’s eating rules unites its proponents, drawing a line between them and nonbelievers. Having control over eating rules allows religious leaders to exercise control over the believers and stress their authority.
People may refuse to eat certain foods to manifest their environmental awareness or condemn the maltreatment of animals. Boycotting of foods originating from certain countries or enterprises, in order to show contempt for the violation of human rights, exploitation of workers or other moral offences is also a way manifesting one’s beliefs.
Social standing and wealth
Expensive and exotic foods may be used to show off wealth and refined taste. Social standing of a person may be determined by the fact where and in whose company he/she eats.
Serving food and beverages is often used for initiating or maintaining personal or business relations. Serving food may be a sign of love and warmth, whereas refusing food may be interpreted as rudeness or a sign of resentment. Depriving someone of food can be used as punishment. Food and drink may well be the center of social gatherings.
Being in control of food supplies and its cost may be a powerful tool in exercising political control or winning political support.
Psychological and emotional factors
Many people have experienced different influences, such as parents, friends or idols during some period of their lives. Psychological factors have an essential role to play in our everyday eating. This might include eating while watching TV or movies. Or, another common set of habits is associated with social meals and daily snacks at work or at school. Incessant snacking as well as forced eating may have negative influence on feeling hunger and satiety.
It’s a common knowledge that our eating behavior changes depending on our emotional condition (anxiety, anger, joy, depression, sadness etc). Emotional eating mostly occurs when we’re home alone. Negative emotions such as boredom, depression, anxiety and stress are the best known emotional influencers. On the other hand, high spirits and feeling well may also stimulate us to eat more since feeling happy is often associated with consuming large quantities of food.
It’s not rare that people praise or punish themselves with food. Comfort eating is associated with satisfying some inner need, such as the desire to feel good, happy or calm.
Some tips for distinguishing between hunger and emotional eating:
- Emotional hunger emerges suddenly, while physical hunger develops gradually;
- Emotional eating involves a craving for a certain food;
- Emotional hunger needs immediate satisfaction;
- Eating for the purpose of satisfying an emotional need will probably continue even past the feeling of satiety;
- Emotional eating may cause guilty feelings afterwards.
Emotions have greater influence on eating habits of overweight people because they cannot distinguish between the need for food as a physical condition and other unpleasant, often emotional conditions which have nothing to do with hunger. Women and frequent dieters are considered more dependent on emotional eating.
A quick comparison between the food landscape of our ancestors and the current environment shows dramatic changes on both sides of the energy balance equation (energy expended vs. energy consumed). In more primitive times, hunters and gatherers foraged for vegetation and hunted animals to eat. They worked hard and expended energy to obtain foods that were not typically calorically dense. As a result, their energy expenditure was more closely balanced with their energy intake. Advances in agriculture and modern farming techniques have provided the opportunity to grow massive quantities of food with far less effort than before.
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