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How Culture and Society Influence Healthy Eating

Written by Dr. Group, DC Founder
Society and Culture Influence Healthy Eating

There many factors that influence your diet. In this article, we are going to focus on the impact social and cultural factors have on healthy eating. To fully understand the concept, let’s look at the basic nature of the human social environment.

According to social scientists Elizabeth Barnett, Ph.D. and Michele Casper, Ph.D.:

“Human social environments encompass the immediate physical surroundings, social relationships, and cultural milieus within which defined groups of people function and interact. Components of the social environment include built infrastructure; industrial and occupational structure; labor markets; social and economic processes; wealth; social, human, and health services; power relations; government; race relations; social inequality; cultural practices; the arts; religious institutions and practices; and beliefs about place and community. [ … ] Social environments can be experienced at multiple scales, often simultaneously, including households, kin networks, neighborhoods, towns and cities, and regions.”[1]

Forming Dietary Habits, The Beginning

Dietary habits and choices develop early. An infant’s eating habits are shaped by their parents in accordance with their view of what constitutes a healthy baby.[2] Those views are shaped by society and can indirectly affect the nutrition the baby receives.[3] Parents who follow a vegan diet, for example, are more likely to introduce vegan food to their children. Some people perceive a heavy baby as more healthy and feed accordingly to achieve such an outcome. Food can be used as a reward for good behavior; sometimes food is used to interrupt bad behavior.

Some research suggests that children pick up eating behaviors by observing the eating habits of others.[4, 5] Frankly, that sounds like the sort of common sense that didn’t need to be clarified with research. After all, children learn nearly everything by copying the behavior of others. As such, it’s important for parents to be a good role model and be careful with the way they encourage or discourage certain types of food. Parents who adopt a “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy or prohibit certain types of food may find themselves having to deal with unexpected consequences when a food’s "forbidden" status makes it more desirable.[6, 7]

Forming dietary habits. A girl refuses to eat vegetables.

Conversely, trying to force a child to eat a specific healthy food isn’t a solid strategy either. Studies show that forcing kids to eat fruits and vegetables they do not like may discourage good eating habits.[8]

When parents are selecting food for their kids, variety and options are key. Parents have the job of choosing what kids eat and shaping their eating habits. This has a big impact on their health, perhaps a bigger impact than anything else. “Children learn about foods they like or dislike by being exposed to different types of food and observing and experiencing the consequences and rewards of consuming those foods.”[9]

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How Society Influences Diet

Culture and society are essential in shaping a person’s diet. Unfortunately, as a society where cheap is good and fast is better, we’ve welcomed super-sized, low-cost fast food that has paved the way for a massive increase in the rate of obesity.[10, 11] In fact, the increased consumption of high calorie, low-nutrition food has spawned an obesity epidemic.

According to the Journal of American Medicine, more than one-third (34.9%) of U.S. adults are obese. Approximately 17% (or 12.7 million) of children and adolescents aged two to nineteen years are obese.

There is also a strong, inverse association between socioeconomic factors such as occupation, income, and obesity.[12] A study documented that the cost of healthy food such as fruits and vegetables is higher than less nutritious, energy-dense food.[13]

Food has become our new national pastime and most social events are centered around food. For example, more than 20 million hot dogs are sold at Major League Baseball games every season. Over 60% of people who go to games say they cannot live without hot dogs during the game.[14]

How Society Influences Diet. A group of people eating burgers and drinking alcohol.

Perhaps no “food” has a bigger impact on society than alcohol. It has the potential to be the one consumable item that can be a common thread in social gatherings. While consuming alcohol in moderation may not have a major impact on your health, alcohol abuse can be very detrimental to your health.

Friends and family exert an influence over your eating habits. When people are together, they tend to eat more, or less, than when they’re alone (depending how much others eat).[15] The type of food eaten in social situations can be different than the food eaten when a person is alone. One study, in particular, found, “Meals eaten with others contained more carbohydrate, fat, protein, and total calories.”[16] Makes sense. After all, an appetizer is fun to share.

How Culture Influences Diet

Media and technology have been a shaping force in culture for many years. This isn’t always for the better. Unfortunately, within the realm of eating habits, research shows that children who watch television are more likely to have unhealthy eating habits.[17]

In our culture, eating trends are also pushed by marketing strategies that may or may not be for the betterment of society. Certainly, the advertisements for highly processed, highly refined, unhealthy food full of artificial sweeteners, fat, and salt aren’t a positive influence. Adding a “cool” and “fun” theme is simply masking these strategies, and it’s offensive. Especially considering the effect a child’s eating habits will have on their health throughout their entire life. Too often, people start out on the wrong foot and end up on track to eating and drinking themselves to death.

Many people, especially young adults, are susceptible to how the media portrays the “perfect body.” Is the media to blame for the epidemic of body dysmorphia and other self-image issues? Magazines full of slim girls or muscular men may lead to a negative body image and, in turn, encourage unhealthy habits.[18] When this is coupled with other factors, such as mental health, there’s little question why serious, sometimes life-threatening, body image and eating disorders are so common.[19]

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and their variants, are serious disturbances in eating behavior. They are associated with a wide range of negative psychological, physical, and social consequences. Eating disorders may start small but obsessive behavior escalates quickly and it doesn’t take long for a serious concern to emerge. Eating disorders are real, treatable medical illnesses.


When people have anorexia nervosa, they see themselves as overweight, even when they are clearly underweight. Eating, food, and weight control become obsessions. There are many symptoms of anorexia, but the most common include weighing oneself repeatedly, eating very small quantities of food, self-induced vomiting, misusing laxatives, diuretics, or even enemas. Anorexia is actually associated with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder![20]


People with bulimia nervosa tend to eat unusually large amounts of food and feel a lack of control over these episodes. Binge-eating is followed by the use of laxatives, diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise or any combination of them. The goal is to compensate the out-of-control eating.

People with this disorder often maintain a normal weight. But the psychological fear factors remain the same — the fear of gaining weight and intense unhappiness with body size and shape. Bulimic behavior is often done secretly as it is often accompanied by feelings of disgust or shame.

Binge-Eating Behavior

Binge-eating behavior often leads to losing control over eating. The difference between binge-eating and bulimia is that in both cases, people eat excessive amounts of food, but people with bulimia compensate out-of-control eating with purging, while pure binge-eaters will not. As a result, people with binge-eating disorder often become overweight or obese.[20]

Inculcating Good Eating Habits

Good Eating Habits. A group of kids eating a healthy meal.

Parents play an important role in shaping the eating habits of their children. If you are a parent, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Expose your kids to a range of healthy foods and start when they’re young. Cheap, poor-quality foods of convenience aren’t appropriate for anyone of any age. Provide gentle guidance but be careful when it comes to strictly forbidding food. If you’re purchasing the groceries, most of the control will be in your hands by default. However, as kids get older and spend more time with friends and away from their parents, they will make their own decisions. It’s important to teach them honestly as opposed to dictating forcefully. Developing a solid foundation of healthy eating habits at home will go a long way.

An easy way to maintain perspective is to ask yourself why people eat? Ultimately, the reason is (or should be) to provide life-giving nourishment to our bodies. Basing your food choices on the nourishment your body needs instead of the junk food that looks tasty is one strategy for making better choices.

Of course, it is not always easy to maintain a healthy diet. For example, many people don’t have the time or desire to cook at home. For others, natural or organic ingredients may be less available. It can also be difficult to consistently follow a balanced diet. When you consider all the macro and micronutrients your body needs on a daily basis, it’s not difficult to understand why many people may not receive the complete nutrition they need. In those instances, vitamins and natural supplements can be a great way to fill the gaps between your nutritional requirements and your nutritional intake.

Can you think of a way society has influenced the way you eat? Have you overcome any trends you weren’t even aware you were following? Leave a message below and share your thoughts.

References (20)
  1. Elizabeth Barnett, Ph.D. and Michele Casper, Ph.D. A Definition of “Social Environment”. National Institutes of Health; 2000. FRAES-00-004.
  2. Dr. Leann Birch, Jennifer S. Savage, Alison Ventura. Influences on the Development of Children's Eating Behaviours: From Infancy to Adolescence. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2007; 68(1): s1–s56.
  3. Baughcum AE, Burklow KA, Deeks CM, Powers SW, Whitaker RC. Maternal feeding practices and childhood obesity: a focus group of low-income mothers. Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine.
  4. Young EM, Fors SW, Hayes DM. Associations between perceived parent behaviors and middle school student fruit and vegetable consumption. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 2004 Jan-Feb;36(1):2-8.
  5. Fisher JO, Mitchell DC, Smiciklas-Wright H, Birch LL. Parental influences of young girls’ fruit and vegetable, micronutrient and fat intakes. Journal of American Dietetic Association, 2002 Jan; 102(1):58-64.
  6. Fisher JO, Birch LL. Restricting access to palatable foods affects children’s behavioral response, food selection, and intake. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999 Jun;69(6):1264-72.
  7. Faith MS, Scanlon KS, Birch LL, Francis LA, Sherry B. Parent-child feeding strategies and their relationships to child eating and weight status. Obesity Research. 2004 Nov;12(11):1711-22.
  8. Fisher JO, Mitchell DC, Smiciklas-Wright H, Birch LL. Parental influences on young girls’ fruit and vegetable, micronutrient and fat intakes. The American Journal of American Dietetic Association. 2002 Jan;102(1):58-64.
  9. Jennifer L. Harris, John A. Bargh. The Relationship between Television Viewing and Unhealthy Eating: Implications for Children and Media Interventions. Health Commun. 2009 Oct; 24(7): 660–673.
  10. French SA, Story M, Neumark-Sztainer D, Fulkerson JA, Hannan P. Fast food restaurant use among adolescents: associations with nutrient intake, food choices and behavioral and psychosocial variable. International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolism Disorders. 2001 Dec;25(12):1823-33.
  11. Jeffery RW, Utter J. The changing environment and population obesity in the United States. Obesity Research. 2003 Oct;11 Suppl:12S-22S.
  12. Ball K, Crawford D. Socioeconomic status and weight change in adults: a review. Social Science and Medicine. 2005 May;60(9):1987-2010. Epub 2004 Nov.
  13. Drewnowski A, Darmon N. Food choices and diet costs: an economic analysis. The Journal of Nutrition 2005 Apr;135(4):900-4.
  14. "The Economy of Food at Sporting Events." Sports Management Degrees. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 July 2016.
  15. Herman CP, Roth DA, Polivy J. Effects of the presence of others on food intake: a normative interpretation. Psychological Bulletin. 2003 Nov;129(6):873-86.
  16. de Castro JM, de Castro ES. Spontaneous meal patterns of humans: influence of the presence of other people. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1989 Aug;50(2):237-47.
  17. Jennifer L. Harris, John A. Bargh. The Relationship between Television Viewing and Unhealthy Eating: Implications for Children and Media Interventions. Health Commun. 2009 Oct; 24(7): 660–673.
  18. Marge Dwyer. New strategies needed for preventing eating disorders. Harvard School of Public Health.
  19. Wendy Spettigue, Katherine A. Henderson. Eating Disorders and the Role of the Media. Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
  20. Eating Disorders: About More than Food. National Institute of Mental Health.

†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.


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