Oftentimes we know what we should eat and not eat to reach and maintain a healthy weight and good overall health. However, even if we have a good idea about what we are supposed to eat, in many cases we just don’t do it and prefer to default to our “normal” eating habits. If we want to change our eating habits to be healthier, more energetic and live longer, then it’s important to be aware about why we like to eat in certain ways instead of others. If we know the forces that are driving our food choices, then it’s more likely that we can do something to steer them towards our nutritional goals.
Why do we eat the way we do?
Think about the people you know in your family or within your circle of friends. Most likely some of your acquaintances like very much certain types of foods whilst some other people you know completely dislike these same foods. For example some of your friends may be meat lovers whereas others may be vegetarian.
So what’s the reason why certain people love certain foods, while some other people hate these very same foods? Is this all due to our genes? Well, probably not. Most likely there are certain foods that you hated some years ago that you now like very much. While it’s true that our genes may have an impact on our food choices, it’s also true that genetics is only one of the many factors that influence how we eat. 
Here is a list of 9 factors that impact our food choices:
- The place where you were born
- Societal norms and constraints
- Global market pressures
- Your family
- What food means to you
- Your sense of taste training
- Your own research
- Food cost and convenience
- Your attitude towards change
1. The place where you were born
Our eating habits depend on where we were born and raised. For example in some cultures it is common to eat a lot of rice, while in other cultures it is more common to eat a lot of bread. So if you prefer bread over rice, or vice versa, it most likely depends on where you were born and raised. In other words, these preferences do not really depend on our deliberate choice but on how we were naturally “programmed” by the fortuitous event that we were born in one place instead of another.
2. Societal norms and constraints
The society in which we live, our closer community and the people we spend our time with have a significant influence on our eating behaviors. We make a toast with an alcoholic drink to celebrate a special event, we eat cakes at birthdays, we systematically overeat in some special occasions like Christmas. These few examples that sound completely normal if you live in a western country, does not apply in other places of the world. On a less frivolous side, social constraints also manifest in terms of absence of foods in poorer countries were people can unfortunately not eat certain foods simply because these foods are not available or too expensive for them.
3. Global market pressures
Big food companies make profits by selling (unhealthy) foods and promoting (unhealthy) eating behaviors. In the US alone, food companies are producing about 4000 calories worth of food daily per person, this means that their sales and marketing objective is to sell 4000 calories worth of food daily to each person.  They are interested in making people eat more, not less. Regardless if we are aware of these pressures or not, what we eat depends at least partially on these marketing pressures from food companies.
4. Your family
Our family of origin shaped our relationship with food. Did your family use to cook at home every day or rather eat ready-to-eat food? Did your parents or relatives used to bake cakes frequently and what was the atmosphere in such events? Did you use to eat a lot of meat or mostly vegetables at home? Did your parent push you to eat more during meals or did they invited you to eat just enough until you naturally felt full? In your family, did you use to overeat or eat sparingly? The experience we went thought in our family certainly shaped who we are now, also in terms of our eating habits. The same applies to your current family. If you are married or have a life partner, then your partner has a great influence on what you eat at home and outside.
5. What food means to you
What do food and their daily eating routine mean to people? Your point of view on food and on eating in general has a great impact on what you actually eat. Here are some possible standpoints on food and eating.
Food for me is (multiple responses are possible):
- An unpleasant and time consuming burden
- A mandatory activity that gives me the fuel and energy to carry on in my day
- An established routine based on a few foods I like since many years
- A shared experience with my loved ones or with the people in my community
- A way to build and maintain my health
- An activity that consists in eating what I like and that has no relation with my health, which depends mainly on luck or other factors
- An opportunity to make new sensorial experiences by exploring new flavors and foods
- One of the most pleasant activities of my day
- A way to go back in time, for example by eating the dishes that my mum cooked for me when I was a kid
- A tool to quickly find comfort and reduce stress whenever I need
- A way to show up my status in society, for example by eating expensive cool foods or eating out in fancy restaurants
6. Your sense of taste training
Some people just like certain foods and dislike others, assuming their taste preferences can not be questioned or will never change. Actually, the sense of taste can be trained and most likely the reason why you like certain foods is because you were naturally trained to enjoy them, for example because these are the foods that you’ve always eaten in your family.  But if you have learned how to like these foods, then you can also learn how to enjoy some of the foods that you don’t currently like. Our sense of taste, in fact, is quite malleable. Think about the first time you ate or drank something new that you did not like the first time and that you now enjoy. For me it was beer. I still remember how disgusting was the first sip of beer I took in my life, but now I enjoy a glass of beer every now and then. The same happened with coffee. Many years ago I used to drink coffee with sugar, then I decided to try coffee without sugar and I found it disgusting. Now, I only drink black coffee with no sugar and I really love it.
7. Your own research
Based on their own experiences and research, many people determine what it’s best to eat for them and they stick to their self-determined eating routine indefinitely. It’s very positive to be curious towards foods and about learning what is good for us, but it’s important to keep this curiosity alive and keep researching and questioning our own conclusions. Otherwise the risk is that we base our eating routine on wrong choices, maybe based on superficial researches or outdated science.
8. Food Cost and convenience
Something that can definitely impact our food choices is the cost of food. Although it’s important to spend our money wisely, when it comes to grocery shopping it’s also important to consider the quality / price ratio of the food we purchase. Always buying the cheapest foods is not a winning strategy because in many cases the cheapest foods may be also the most harmful for our health. When purchasing foods, we should keep in mind the total costs that may arise from our choices, not only the cost of the foods we buy now, but also the future costs that may arise if we ruin our health.
9. Your attitude towards change
Supermarkets in western countries typically offer a very large array of foods options, yet most people tend to purchase always the same foods over and over again. It’s like a painter who always uses the same three colors out of a palette of thousands of colors; obviously this limits very much the type of paintings that the painter can create.
Similarly, if we always purchase the same foods among a wide range of possibilities, then we are self-limiting not only the possibility to enjoy a greater variety of flavors that can give us greater eating pleasure, but also the possibility that we get all the beneficial nutrients that are needed to keep us in good health. So your openness to change and curiosity to try new things may be an important factor that maximizes or minimizes the chances that you eat for optimal health.
How can we influence our food choices?
First of all, we need to understand that our health depends very much on what we eat. Then we should realize that other healthier and more fulfilling ways of eating are possible, and develop a conviction that we do have the power to change our own habits. Finally we must develop a burning desire to take the necessary steps towards a positive and lasting change.
Before taking any steps, however, it’s vital to become aware of our current eating habits and what is driving them. By becoming familiar with these hidden forces, you will be able to steer them like a sailor that can navigate the planned route also with opposite wind. If you need a compass for steering your eating journey, take a look at my Free weekly meal planner for healthy eating.