Three factors that influence unhealthy food choices (they have nothing to do with being rich or poor)

A few weeks ago I woke up and read a Twitter conversation sparked by an article written by award-winning food writer Jane Black. Since then, I have thought a lot about the article and the conversations that followed in the Twitterverse. Jane’s guest column, on the website of the Stone Barnes Center for Food and Agriculture, points out how elite foodies are fundamentally out of touch with the reasons behind why less-affluent, rural, and/or poor families hadn’t made a switch to healthier eating.

What struck me most about her essay was her observation that one of the main obstacles preventing less affluent people in red-state America from eating healthy didn’t have anything to do with ignorance, lack of desire, or rebellion against elite coastal foodie cultures. It did have to do with economics, but not in the way you might think: in fact, it had everything to do with the combination of lifestyle and economics.

In other words, if you work two jobs and barely make ends meet, the last thing you want to do when you get home is cook a healthy meal. It’s easier, and relatively cheap, to head to the closest fast food joint instead. A big part of the reason why, then, so many of the working poor still choose to eat unhealthy foods is that they just don’t have the time and energy to make healthy, home-cooked meals. Right?

Well maybe, but it isn’t the only reason.

Walmart now has organic offerings. And they are learning how to market these better to a lot more people because organic costs a little more, and why wouldn’t Walmart want to make more money?

And what about food deserts, places where the closest grocery store is an hour’s drive away? Forget about restaurants, even fast-food ones, being a daily option for many people living in the food deserts of rural America.

Photo credit:     paix120     via     Visual hunt     /      CC BY-NC

Photo credit: paix120 via Visual hunt /  CC BY-NC

Economic struggles didn’t always deter people from eating generally healthy food: there have always been people in America who have worked hard, long hours and struggled to make ends meet. Not that long ago, most people who found themselves in that situation still managed to cook meals at home (yes, even in those families that didn’t have a stay-at-home adult who took care of the cooking and housework). Many of these households even grew small gardens to supplement their food supply.

So what has changed?

To begin finding answers, I first turned to my mother, (who knows a lot about a lot of things and is generally considered a treasured source of advice by family, friends, and total strangers alike). Then I began asking random people of all economic backgrounds about why they chose to eat unhealthy food when they did. Finally, I did some research online.

This is what I came up with.

There are three major factors beyond economics that influence the eating habits of ordinary folks today. These three apply to all kinds of people, whether affluent, poor, or middle-class; rural, urban, or peri-urban; red state, blue state, or purple state; working 35-50 hours per week, or working 80 or more hours a week.

The three factors are priorities, food cultures, and social networks.

First, the connection between food and health is just not in the forefront of many people’s minds. In other words, eating healthy a majority of the time is not a priority. In some cases, it’s lack of motivation, and in others it may be a lack of concern or urgency. What’s more, many people don’t connect what they eat with their own personal health outcomes until they are faced with a crisis: someone close to them dies suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack, or their doctor tells them that they have to immediately change their dietary habits or will be facing a life-threatening health crisis.

Even that doesn’t always change people’s behavior, as Jane Black reveals in telling the story of Matthew Clayton, whose two brothers died of obesity-related diseases, who is obese himself, and who still eats a lot of fast food. Many people don’t stop and think about what might be in a fast food meal that only costs $3.99, as compared to a similar meal from a restaurant that costs $13.99. And others just don’t really care much, as long as the $3.99 meal tastes good and is easy to come by.

Second, there has been a seismic change in food cultures in the US (and many other countries) since the time of my mother’s childhood. For many people growing up in the 1940s and 50s, “eating out” meant going to a relative’s house to eat. Fast food was still a novelty, mostly catering to travelers.

In 1921 in the United States, White Castle began serving burgers out of its Wichita, Kansas restaurant. Most people found the idea of this kind of food fare unappealing. Later, White Castle made efforts to change public perception of their food, using glass so customers could see it being prepared. Fast forward to 1940, the first McDonald’s opened as a barbecue joint. It redesigned its restaurant in 1948, using assembly line technology. Burger King and Taco Bell followed suit in the 1950s, and then came Wendy’s in 1969.

Along with the growth of fast food joints came an explosion in advertising that was designed to make this kind of food more appealing to the average consumer. Back in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, there were relatively few advertisements. Fast forward to today, and we are faced with a barrage of advertisements on billboards, tv, and internet, constantly distracting us with enticing ads about unhealthy convenience foods.

See for yourself: get a stopwatch and then turn to a prime time station on your tv. Count how many minutes pass until you see a commercial for an unhealthy convenience food. Then see how many of these come up in an hour. If you’re watching a kids’ channel, you’ll see even more of these commercials. If you’re watching a channel targeting black youth audiences, you’ll see even more.)

Aside from the onslaught of information enticing us to eat packaged, convenient, unhealthy, fast food, there is the issue of food sub-cultures. What kinds of food have people grown up eating? What are they used to and what do their palates prefer? Sometimes people don’t make the switch to eating healthy foods because they just don’t like these kinds of food (or they think they won’t). On the other hand, many people continue eating the foods they grew up with, even if it’s deep-fried, breaded, artery-clogging fare because it reminds them of grandma’s cooking, or Sundays around the dinner table after church.

When kids grow up eating healthy foods, they tend to crave healthy foods because their brains have essentially become programmed to like, and even prefer, this kind of food. I wrote about this earlier in a blog post about kids and the Healthy Lunch movement in the US.

Photo credit:     Ed Yourdon     via     VisualHunt     /      CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon via VisualHunt /  CC BY-NC-SA

Third, social networks have a big influence on people’s eating habits. If the people you surround yourself with are overweight and unhealthy eaters, chances are you will be(come) overweight and unhealthy too. Social networks make all kinds of behavior, including unhealthy eating habits, feel more socially acceptable: it seems like everyone around you is engaging in them because, essentially, they are. What’s more, in many social circles, it’s expected that people will get fat as they age, although there is no evidence that this trend is inevitable. What is evident is that many overweight people don’t even realize that they’re overweight.

In the southeast region of the United States, thinness is an outlier, whereas it is more the norm in places like Los Angeles. Plant the average Californian or Coloradan in a major city in Georgia, Mississippi, or Louisiana, and physically speaking, her body type will stand out as being outside the norm.

While I agree with Jane Black that the conversation about food has become overtly political, and food-shaming is pointless, I think the reasons that people choose unhealthy over healthy food can’t be adequately explained by economics.

But like Jane Black, I agree selling (and advertising) more healthy convenience foods is a good way forward for food strategists. Turning healthy food into something that’s palatable for the mass market is no easy task, though. Maybe the trick isn’t to try to eliminate fast, unhealthy food – most of us will always crave some of that, sometimes.


I believe that the trick to encouraging more healthy eating and less unhealthy bingeing is increasing options for healthy fare at the same time that we address challenges like food deserts and tackle the problems with the commercial food industry. In so doing, we’ll be fostering a culture of healthy eating that involves, among other things, giving people the tools and hacks they need to get things started in a way that makes sense for their lifestyles.

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