Skip to main content

Nutrition Culture: Exploring Our Emotional and Cultural Attachments to Unhealthy Food

Lauren studied International Cultural Studies at BYU-Hawaii and went on to study nutrition. Macaroni and cheese is her weakness.


What You Crave Is Who You Are

Diet. Oh, the dreaded word. Along with its counterparts “cutting back” and “lifestyle change,” this term can strike fear into the most stouthearted and ruin the moods of the perpetually optimistic. I know every time I’ve tried to go on a diet or eat healthier, the decision was inevitably accompanied by a sense of dread and loss. I suspect many of you have experienced these same feelings.

That’s because all too often the choice to improve our personal nutrition habits means we don’t go out to eat as much, we don’t socialize as often, and if we do, it’s often not with the same gusto. We have a hard time getting through our day when we know we can’t reward ourselves at the end of it with a tasty burger and fries or a big bowl of ice cream. Grocery shopping seems even more like a chore and life seems to be a little lackluster. Striving to be healthy is no fun because we associate so much of our emotional state with food.

Sure, when we make better nutritional choices, we have more energy, get better sleep, and have an increased sense of satisfaction with our bodies, but all too often these advantages and feelings aren’t enough to keep us from hopping on the bad nutrition train time and time again. Why does this happen?

We often have cravings, triggers, and feelings associated with our social and cultural experiences that keep us coming back to the junk food buffet of life.

Improving Nutrition Means Changing How We View Food

Aside from having strong personal emotional ties with our food, we often have cravings, triggers, and feelings associated with our social and cultural experiences that keep us coming back to the junk food buffet of life. These emotions can stem from our personal experiences and habits as well as environmental and community influences.

There is a wealth of information regarding how nutrition affects your physical health. There have been studies and diets and testimonials and legislatures that have attested to how important good nutrition is for your body. But how do food and beverage affect you socially? How does your level of nutrition affect your emotions? Your mental states? How much of your nutrition is dictated to you by the culture in which you live?

In order to truly improve our level of nutrition, we need to change our personal and societal culture of how we think about and approach food and beverages. We need to explore the effects of differing nutrition cultures throughout the world and also how they have changed through history. We need to identify our personal relationship and emotional connection to food; tackle all of the instances and events wherein our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings are associated with bad nutrition; and consider how to overcome those habits. Then we need to look at nutrition on a larger scale, how it affects our communities and countries and consider actions needed to improve nutrition culture as a whole.

Nutrition Culture Throughout the World

In high school I befriended a French exchange student who constantly bemoaned how much weight she had gained from living in America for two months. She hadn’t changed much of her lifestyle, but succumbing to the availability of pizza, fries, and candy on a daily basis made a big difference in her health.

Conversely, In the book Sugar Blues, William Dufty describes a period in which he experienced excellent health while serving in the military during World War II. Where he was stationed in the Vosges in Eastern France, they had no processed foods or imported goods, and he foraged on horse meat, rabbit, and dark peasant bread. During this time he experienced the best health of his life. When he got back to America, however, he went right back to a toxic diet, with disastrous consequences.

Japan, Greece, and Norway boast some of the healthiest food and eating habits in their culture, and it’s no coincidence that these countries are ranked among the top in healthy inhabitants. These people are surrounded by meals that include nuts, olive oil, seaweed, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. For anyone that’s attempted to diet or change their eating habits, it’s not rocket science that when you’re surrounded by healthy food and junk food is out of reach it’s far easier to make better health choices.

Greek food is considered one of the world's healthiest cuisines.

Greek food is considered one of the world's healthiest cuisines.

Food as Community vs. Convenience

But it seems it’s not only what the people of these countries eat but how they eat. In France, eating and cooking are done slowly with relish and gusto. Marco Bolasco has said, “Food in Italy is love, then nutrition, then history, then pleasure.” At banquets in China, the most valuable food is served first, like fish and meats, and is then followed by less expensive fare, such as vegetables, soup, and carbohydrates.

Another custom in China is that meals are traditionally shared family style, with multiple people eating off of the same platters. This is also common in Arab countries, especially during Ramadan when the Iftar breaks the daily fast. The Iftar can range from family and private groups to large gatherings at schools and community centers.

Too often in the United States, where people are too busy to consider what they’re putting in their mouth and convenience trumps all, we open up a packaged something or other for dinner and scarf it down as fast as we can while reading some fascinating article on our phone before we’re off to the next thing. Consider how you might experience your food and meals differently if they were savored, if you took time to prepare and consume them, focusing on the flavors. What if you began your meal with the rich proteins instead of with bread? How would your eating habits change if every meal were a social event, if you were not only sharing food, but meaningful conversation and experiences as well? We must recognize that it is not only the food and beverages that we’re surrounded by every day that contribute to our nutrition, the actual prevalent culture we live in plays a part as well.

In matters of health and diet, the foods with which you surround yourself, the ones that are in your house or in your community or being advertised on television, often become a big part of your nutrition habits. The food culture we live in, as well as the way we treat and view our meals, plays directly into our health.

A Brief History of Processed Foods in America

Nationally and globally, we’ve gone through a lot of change in regards to our nutrition culture, and even what people and specialists classify as good nutrition. From the pastoral lifestyles of our ancestors, with their idyllic raw and locally produced diets, to the 1980s, when ketchup was declared a vegetable by the USDA in the school lunch program, we’ve all been through the ringer trying to figure out what good nutrition looks like.

One of the biggest detriments to our health has been the introduction of processed and convenience foods. While these foods may save us loads of time in the kitchen, we often make up for it with decreased levels of energy and feeling sick more often.

There are three different kinds of processed foods. The first group is foods that are minimally processed. This includes store-bought nuts, bagged salads, and organic milk, where the processing has not changed the nutritional profile of the goods.

The second type is semi-processing, where the whole foods are changed by adding or extracting substances. Cake mixes and salad dressing would fall under this category.

The third group, which are the kinds of foods we should try to avoid, are the ultra-processed. These foods are created by merging several semi-processed ingredients, and include soft drinks, pizza, chicken nuggets, and chips.


Processed food first came on the scene in 1910, when Nathan’s hot dogs and Oreo cookies were unleashed on the public. Over the next 40 years, new kitchen appliances, two world wars, and continuing research would further the consumption of convenience foods, with fast-food restaurants becoming an attractive staple of the popular culture. Candy bars, canned foods and TV dinners won the hearts of Americans everywhere.

Over the decades we have continued to trade health for convenience. Our food choices reflect our increasingly fast-paced and career-driven culture, so even though we’ve become educated about the danger of processed foods, we continue to consume them. This is because processed foods are formulated to be convenient, cost effective, and addictive. This veritable triple threat is what keeps us coming back for more. Is it any wonder that we continuously fail in our efforts to eat healthier? With specialized ingredients and fantastic marketing campaigns, these pleasurable and highly volatile products have worked their way into our hearts, both figuratively and literally. They have become part of who we are, they contribute to our emotional makeup and our culture.

As we seek to improve our nutritional culture, it’s important to realize that we don’t necessarily have to change who we are. Our traditional, social, and personal experiences often extend beyond food and beverage, and even then we can usually just limit those instances that are impeding our health instead of eradicating them altogether. So unless the core of your identity is being the hot dog eating champion of the world, your individuality will not suffer should you strive to rectify your nutrition culture.


Sugar Blues by William Dufty

Fast Food Genocide: How Processed Food is Killing Us and What We Can Do About It by Joel Fuhrman

What The World's Healthiest Diets Have in Common

Processed Food and Why it is the Main Cause of Obesity

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Lauren Flauding