From mood to cost to nutritional value, a complex variety of factors influences what we eat

Nutritional value as a factor influencing food choice appears to increase with age

What's for dinner tonight? When you ask yourself that question, a whole variety of considerations might pop into your head. What do you have in the fridge? What flavours are you craving? How many are you cooking for? Do you even feel like cooking, or is it easier to pick something up on the way home?

You're not alone in this decision-making process. A new study by Medibank highlights just how complex the nature of food selection really is. From nutritional value to cost to your mood, a range of factors come into play with each choice you make. The trouble is, while 58% of Australians believe their diet is unbalanced and needs to change, half feel that their nutritional choices are largely influenced by things beyond their control.

Top factors influencing food choice

The Medibank Health Check #5: 'Food selection – you are what you eat' surveyed 1500 Australians about their perceptions on nutrition and diet, and the factors impacting their food choices. This report is the fifth in a series of quarterly community surveys that delve into Australians' perceptions on emerging health issues.

The survey identified three key things that influence our decisions on what to eat:

  • Mood and emotions. 26% of respondents reported their mood and feelings as having the most influence on food choice. This influence generally declines with age but peaks in the 55-64 age group.
  • Price. 23% said the cost of food was the number one factor impacting their food choices. The influence of price generally becomes less important with increasing age and income.
  • Nutritional value. 22% said they considered nutritional value to be the top influencer on their food choice. This influence significantly increases with age.

The report also revealed that:

  • 64% of people simply eat what is served up to them
  • 69% say meal selection depends on what is in the kitchen
  • 52% believe they should change their diet but don’t know how
  • 53% find it difficult to make healthy choices
  • 68% eat regular meals, with 61% also snacking between meals

The results suggest that the path to a better diet rests in people first identifying what is in their control, and taking it from there, says Medibank’s Dr Ian Boyd.

“Clearly, the myriad of influences on what people eat means the path to better health is more difficult than it could be,” Dr Boyd says. “The fact that people feel they don’t have control over the food they eat is of particular concern.

“The issue of control is compounded by the prevalence of snacking. There was also a high level of uncertainty about whether people have a balanced diet: 58% of respondents are either uncertain or believe their diet is not balanced.”

“When it comes to diet and health there is no 'one-size-fits-all' or magic bullet approach.""

How to achieve a more balanced diet

Dietitians Association of Australia spokesperson Katie Mueller says the influence of price points to an important issue for Australia as a whole.

“This shows just how important it is that healthy foods, like fruit and vegetables, remain affordable for Australians, especially those in rural and remote areas, to make it easier for people to choose these foods,” she says.

Ms Mueller suggests that working towards a better diet is an individual process, with many factors to take into account. “When it comes to diet and health there is no 'one-size-fits-all' or magic bullet approach, so it’s important to take a long-term approach to healthy eating, based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and to consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian for personalised, practical nutrition advice.”

be. magazine nutrition expert Professor Tim Crowe agrees, noting that when it comes to a healthy diet, eating fresh is best. “Eating healthier is not about keeping up with the latest food trends on social media,” he says.

“One simple change to make is just loading up your weekly shop with more fresh and perishable foods, and less shelf-stable processed foods. Then let inspiration play its role in your kitchen.”

Read the full report, Medibank Health Check #5: 'Food selection – you are what you eat'.

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