What influences our eating decisions?

A global study has examined the details of modern vs traditional eating

Eating has changed vastly over the years, evolving from a necessity to survive to a social interaction of pleasure and health. Although access to food and variety is improving, traditional eating still occurs in many nations, especially those with well-established culinary histories. So how does the way we eat affect us?

“Modern eating patterns in the Western world are characterised by a high consumption of ultra-processed foods, and eating out of home. In contrast, there are countries with more traditional eating patterns, local food consumption and family meals,” says Dr Matthew Ruby, a lecturer in the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University. “However, many countries across the world are experiencing a nutrition transition towards modern eating patterns.”

Dr Ruby has been collaborating with a global team of researchers to conduct a study on modern dietary habits and the effect of modern and tradition eating.

“Most of the past research on eating has focussed very heavily on what people eat, the foods that they eat, how it is prepared and where it comes from,” says Dr Gudrun Sproesser, lead researcher of the project and a psychologist from the University of Konstanz, Germany. “Not nearly enough attention has been paid to the social dynamics of how people are eating, their orientation towards food, the structure of meals or the amount of time that is put into preparing meals.”

“Our study fills this gap and provides a comprehensive understanding of psychological factors that underlie these eating patterns in countries that differ in the degree to which they have moved through the nutrition transition.”

Dr Sproesser and her team developed a 12-facet framework to conceptualise the ‘what’ and  ‘how’ of traditional and modern eating. Surveys were conducted across Ghana, India, China, Turkey, Mexico, Japan, Brazil, France, Germany, and the USA – ten diverse countries with a variety of dietary circumstances.

“In many cultures there’d traditionally be fixed mealtimes. You’d be sitting down eating particular dishes typically from your region or according to specific social structures,” says Dr Ruby. “Nowadays, with our hyper-modern society, people are often eating while sitting at their desk, chatting with people via video conferencing, or eating on-the-go and not having a proper mealtime. In most traditional cultures this would be unheard of.”

The team believes that the international approach gives a unique and comprehensive insight into psychological factors underlying traditional and modern eating behavior across a wide range of individuals and countries. They hope that the data will facilitate future research on this behavior, as well as its causes and consequences.

“Without question, the modern food environment has brought advantages, but in its extremes it has led to an increase in chronic diseases. Traditional eating appears to be protective against these,” says Dr Sproesser.

“In essence, we are just trying to isolate these individual facets of what is traditional and what is modern,” says Dr Ruby. “To find which of these things are relatively culturally universal and culturally specific, and then seeing which ones seems to matter the most in terms of people’s wellbeing.”