Three nutrition stories caught my eye this month because they were not about food. Each made a case for other factors that may determine whether we have a healthy lifestyle or not. As a dietitian and anthropologist, I know eating behavior is complex, so I'm thrilled to see research that attempts to unravel that.
Here's a summary of the latest news that helps explain why we do what we do for (or against) our own health.
Personality Affects Healthy Habits
Believing your life is controlled by luck or fate may make it harder for you to have a healthy lifestyle according to a large study done in Australia. Researchers at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research analyzed data on over 7000 people and found a direct link between type of personality and whether a person smoked, exercised, made healthy food choices or abused alcohol.
Those who believed their life could be changed by their own actions had the healthiest lifestyles, especially women with a "can-do" attitude. People who did not feel they had control over their destiny had the most unhealthy behaviors.
These findings suggest that information alone is not enough to get people to take better care of their health. New policies may have to be directed at how we view our role in our own destinies.
Behavior Patterns Help Weight Control
Want to weigh 9 pounds less? Read food labels. It's not quite that easy, but data about eating and shopping habits analyzed from the U.S. National Health Interview Study involving 25,000 observations found women who read food labels while grocery shopping weigh nearly 9 pounds less than those who don't.
Of course, reading labels does not make you weigh less. It is one of many behaviors that are part healthier lifestyle, like exercising regularly, not smoking and getting routine medical check-ups. One by one, all of those behaviors form a pattern which defines how you live your life without having to think about it. And each piece is equally important.
Combined with the results from the previous study, this means for anyone interested in making some improvements in their health, reading labels is a good place to start.
Perceptions Influence Taste
Americans are at a distinct disadvantage compared to the French when it comes to enjoying what's good for them. A study in Food Quality and Preference found the French associate healthy food with tastiness and unhealthy food with bad taste. Americans, on the other hand, make a stronger connection between unhealthy food and tastiness.
These findings reveal a difference in how food is perceived by the two cultures, not a measure of the actual taste. When a neutral food was described as healthy, the French considered it tastier, more pleasurable and of better quality than when identified as unhealthy. That's a win-win for them. In contrast, American consumers are more likely to overeat foods perceived as unhealthy because they unconsciously consider those foods to be more delicious.
Since taste is repeatedly ranked as the number one factor in food purchasing decisions by Americans, we need to reframe the word "healthy" to mean "yummy." Try it next time you're looking at a food label!