Factors influencing eating behaviour

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What is the debate?

It is questionable which factors influence our attitudes to food and eating behaviour. 

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Outline health concerns

Arguing for the role of health concerns influencing our attitudes to eating behaviour, according to the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen), our behavioural intention to eat healthy foods is based upon a cognitive judgement of our: attitudes about the pros and cons of a particular food (I like apples), the notice we pay to social norms we experience of that food (everyone knows that apples are good for you) and the level of behavioural control we feel we have to choose those foods over others (I am confident I can choose apples over chocolate). The outcome of this cost-benefit analysis predicts our behavioural intention to eat particular foods, which (according to the theory) translates into actual behaviour. Media health campaigns (such a 5 a day campaign) are designed to influence peoples' social norms to encourage their behavioural intention to eat more healthily.

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2 psychologists providing evidence for health conc

Suggesting that health concerns influence our eating behaviour, limited evidence comes from Sparks, who found the Theory of Planned Behaviour does predict people's intention to eat wholemeal bread and organic vegetables, because of the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis for those foods. Furthermore, Hutchings found that our notice of social norms was twice as likely to predict their behavioural intentions to drink compared with other factors in the Theory of Planned Behaviour. This suggests that health concerns do influence our eating behaviour and the more attention we pay to social norms, the more we will intend to eat healthily.

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AO2 evaluation of health concerns

However, perhaps undermining the influence of health concerns on our eating behaviour, being cognitive, the Theory of Planned Behaviour can be criticised for being simplistic because it unfairly simplifies our attitudes to food by ignoring the role of mood, which has been show to affect our eating behaviour (e.g. masking hypothesis). Furthermore, the Theory of Planned Behaviour is simplistic because it more accurately predicts cognitions about eating behaviour (what we think we should eat), than actual eating behaviour (what we actually eat). For example, most people know (cognitive) they shouldn’t eat too many biscuits but often eat more than they should.

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Outline the role of mood

Secondly, arguing for the role of mood in our eating behaviour, according to the opiate hypothesis we are more likely to choose foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates (e.g. doughnuts) which stimulate the production of endogenous opioids, pain-blocking neurotransmitters produced in the pleasure centre of the mid-brain, which provide a feeling of pleasure (hedonic response). Therefore, the masking hypothesis argues that we sometimes eat to 'mask' our 'negative feelings' with the hedonic response from endogenous opioids.

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What did Garg find?

Adding convincing evidence in support of the role of mood in explaining our eating behaviour, Garg found that those who watched a sad film ate 28% more popcorn that those who watched a happy film, even though the two films had been matched on many other ratings (e.g. Box office success). This is due to the masking hypothesis as those watching a sad film ate more sweet foods to stimulate the production of endogenous opioids and receive an hedonic response to mask the negative feelings caused by the sad film. This suggests that mood does affect eating behaviour.

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What did Van Strein find?

Furthermore, strong evidence for the role of mood in eating behaviour comes from Van Strein, found that stressful life events predicted weight gain in men over a 18 month period- but only for those classified as emotional eaters. This is because they mask negative feelings (stress) with the hedonic response received by endogenous opioids when eating sweet foods- which cause weight gain. However, this also shows individual differences as not everybody has a tendency to eat when stressed. Although, this does suggest that for 'comfort/emotional eaters' mood does affect eating behaviour.

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Outline the role of culture

Arguing for the role of culture affecting out attitudes to food and eating behaviour, evidence suggests that different cultures tolerate different foods due to the availability of certain foods types in each culture. For example, dairy products are readily available in Europe. As a result Europeans are lactose tolerant (being able to easily digest dairy products). However, in China's history dairy products were a socially undesirable food because they were seen as a food of the Mongolians. As a result there is a high incidence of lactose intolerance in Chinese population, with many being allergic to milk and dairy products.

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Evidence for culture

Adding weighting to the role of culture influencing our eating behaviour, convincing evidence comes from Leshem, who found no difference in the eating behaviour of Bedouin Arabs living in traditional desert camps compared with those who had spent at least one generation in urban settings. This suggests the lasting influence of culture on our attitudes to food, as 'urban' Bedouin Arabs continues to eat in the same way as their ancestors (despite a wider access to food).

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What is the conclusion?

Therefore, it is clear that health concerns and mood play a significant part in our attitudes to food, and (to a lesser extent) our culture may also influence our eating behaviour.

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