Understanding The Context Of Food Choices

by Jeanne P. Goldberg, PhD, RD and Catherine M. Wright, MS on May 14, 2014

Figuring out why consumers do not follow dietary recommendations—and getting them to change their behavior—requires (1) understanding the context surrounding how they choose their food and (2) recognizing the multiple factors that influence those choices.

Knowledge Isn’t Enough

Decades of research show that knowledge alone does not shift behavior, and that nutrition knowledge in particular is not a primary driver of food choice. Take the case of fruit and vegetable consumption. A recent survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation found that although consumers knew what they should do to improve their diets—including eating more fruits and vegetables—only a third of them had started doing it in the previous year (IFIC 2013).

In most cases, nutrient abundance or health benefits do not motivate people to eat fruits, vegetables or anything else for that matter. The primary concern is whether items taste good. Consumers consistently rank taste as the primary determinant of food and beverage choices. Concern about healthfulness ranks third or fourth behind price and convenience (Glanz et al. 1998; IFIC 2013). It follows that we must address consumer attitudes toward taste if we hope to succeed in shifting their behavior.

The Food Environment

The disconnect between nutrition recommendations and dietary behavior is only part of the story. Consumers make choices about what food to purchase and consume in an environment that has been referred to by some as “toxic” (Brownell & Horgen 2004). While that description is extreme, it is important to recognize that many foods that are widely available are not the most healthful choices. While food in general is relatively inexpensive, foods recommended from a nutritional standpoint tend to be more expensive than highly processed foods that contain lots of sugars and fats. Restaurant portions are too big and contribute to diets that exceed recommendations for fat, saturated fat and sodium (Wu & Sturm 2013). In some geographic areas, often called “food deserts,” healthier options are not available.

Changing the larger food environment may not be within the control of those of us who work with individual consumers on changing their behavior. However, it is our responsibility to help them understand how to navigate a very complex food environment in order to select healthful diets.

To read the full article that ran in the May 2014 issue of the IDEA Fitness Journal click here.


Brownell, K.D., & Horgen, K.B. 2004. Food Fight. Chicago: Contemporary.

Glanz, K.B., et al. 1998. Why Americans eat what they do: Taste, nutrition, cost, convenience, and weight control concerns as influences on food consumption. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 98 (10), 1118–26.

IFIC (International Food Information Council). 2013. 2013 Food & Health Survey: Consumer attitudes toward food safety, nutrition, and health. www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=2013_ IFIC_Foundation_Food_Health_Survey_Media_ Resources; accessed Jan. 21, 2014.

Wu, H.W., & Sturm, R. 2013. What’s on the menu? A review of the energy and nutritional content of US chain restaurant menus. Public Health Nutrition, 16 (1), 87–96.

© 2015 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Authors

Jeanne P. Goldberg, PhD, RD IDEA Author/Presenter

Catherine M. Wright, MS IDEA Author/Presenter


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