Research: Food Choices & Eating Habits

My team and I have spent the past six weeks researching eating habits among individuals from a wide range of income levels and backgrounds. At the beginning of our research, we looked at access to healthy food among low-income individuals. However, after speaking to experts at the Sustainable Food Center and the Central Texas Food Bank, we learned that even when people have access to healthy food, they still not might take advantage of it (I’m actually a perfect example of this – sorry, Mom!).

We then changed our focus to understand why people don’t eat a balanced diet even when they have have access to nutritious food and a cause (e.g. depression, diabetes) to eat nutritious food. Some initial reasons we’ve found are lack of time, convenience, motivation, and/or education; peer, environmental, familial, and/or cultural influence; and food addiction.

Process: Finding Patterns

We interviewed 20 people who were gracious enough to allow us into their homes and let us ask them questions. We transcribed each interview, and then printed out “utterances” (1-3 sentences describing a particular idea or event).

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We then dug into the data and began to notice patterns between the participants.

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Three patterns I’ll highlight here are:

  1. A catastrophic event can motivate a diet change
  2. Food labels are meaningless
  3. Food is used as a drug

A catastrophic event can motivate a diet change

Some of the people we spoke to changed their diet after being diagnosed with diabetes, depression, Celiacs, or Crohn’s Disease.

Taylor told us that “getting pregnant was [enough to change my mindset about smoking]. When I found out I was pregnant, I had a guilty conscience. I was already 3 months pregnant, I was drinking and smoking. I felt super bad. I just stopped smoking.”

Food labels are meaningless

Many people we spoke to expressed confusion over terms like “natural,” “organic,” and “free-range.” More than confusion, some were deeply skeptical, saying that labels were used purely for marketing purposes.

Even diet “trends” are manipulative — Jolene told us, “You’ll see ‘gluten-free,’ and people think that’s healthy. Like a Hershey’s chocolate bar is gluten-free, but that doesn’t mean that should be the staple of your breakfast.”

Food is used as a drug

Several interviewees were recovering addicts and described their relationship with food as a substitute for their former drug of choice.

Delilah, a recovering crack addict, said that within her first year of sobriety, she “didn’t care how fat [she] got, as long as [she] was sober.” Only once she was diagnosed with diabetes did she start to change her eating habits.

One individual in particular told us that cheese is five times more addictive than heroin. We resolved that whatever comes of this research, we will make cheese illegal. (All I’ve eaten this semester is pasta and parmesan cheese. Not sure what I’ll do…)

Next Steps

While these findings are interesting, we must dig more deeply into the data to find meaningful behavioral insights.

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One AC4D alum pointed out that our “war room” is an externalization of our brains. Given that there are still so many unorganized utterances, we clearly have not made sense of all the data available. We will take the next two weeks to do so.