Life / Food

Budget, not a lack of knowledge, fuels bad eating habits: Study

The majority of participants in the study told interviewers that if money were no object, they’d prefer to eat healthy foods.

Public-health pushes, in the media and in schools, to get us to make healthier food choices seem to be sinking in, says a university sociology professor.

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Public-health pushes, in the media and in schools, to get us to make healthier food choices seem to be sinking in, says a university sociology professor.

It’s a hard question to answer. It’s a hard question to even ask.

Why do people who have less money and lower education tend to choose foods that are bad for them?

According to new Canadian research, it’s not that they don’t know better.

Public-health pushes, in the media and in schools, to get us to make healthier food choices seem to be actually sinking in, explains University of Toronto sociology professor Shyon Baumann, co-author of a new paper in the journal Consumer Behaviour.

The study, which consisted of in-depth interviews with 105 diverse Canadian families from across the country, shows people of low socioeconomic status (based on their income, education level and occupation) do have different food preferences than people who are better off.

However, the majority of participants in the study, no matter their social group, told interviewers that if money were no object, they’d prefer to eat healthy foods, especially more fresh fruits and vegetables.

"There’s debate about the reasons people with low economic resources make (food) choices that are seen as bad choices," Baumann said. "It’s not because low-income, low-education people don’t know what foods are nutritious and healthy, or that they would benefit from eating them, or even that they wouldn’t enjoy them."

It’s primarily money – not a lack of knowledge – driving their decisions, he said.

"The policy implication is not that we should educate more, though we shouldn’t stop," Baumann said. "It’s really important that healthy food is affordable to people, whether that's subsidizing or providing resources."

Not only are healthy, whole foods more expensive, but cooking a new healthy dish comes with a hidden cost for people on limited budgets, Baumann said: If your family doesn't like it, you're out the money.

In that context, it's easier to understand why poorer participants professed their love of "mainstream, corporate" brands that rich study subjects spoke of with disdain, such as Knorr Sidekicks and Kellogg's cereals. These brands are valued for their "efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and predictability," the study says.

There are some ways to help people overcome the barriers to trying new, healthy foods, said Fiona Yeudall, director of the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson University.

Portion Size

The study also dove into the tricky topic of poorer people’s preference for larger portion sizes, something policy makers need to understand to help fight Canada's epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

"Richer people describe delicious foods as being fancy, while poorer people describe food as delicious when there’s a lot of it," author Shyon Baumann said.

But, he added, the issue is really complicated. And it's not about gluttony or ignorance of what's healthy.

"Taste is connected to everyday experience. When that experience involves being constrained economically, those constraints become transformed into preferences," he said.

"Previous research has shown eating high fat, highly processed, high sugar foods can be a rational economic choice," because you get more calories from the same budget and feel full for the day, said Fiona Yeudall.

She mentioned public-health programs that give people a chance to try cooking something new in a low-stakes, group setting like a community kitchen.

Other barriers include availability of food in the neighbourhood, access to cupboard space at home, and how much time busy, low-wage workers have to prepare food, she added.

But little is known about these and other drivers of people's food choices, which is why this kind of research is valuable, she said. And it comes just as the federal government works to put together a national food policy.

"The regular players are at the table: Health charities, health professions, industry. That's the policy round table. Well, what about an eater’s round table? Who’s speaking for people who eat?" she said.

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