Hungry for change

April 17, 1998

Why do people eat what they do? Researchers from across Britain have come up with different answers, reports Anne Murcott

At the beginning of the 1990s, Britons were perhaps more food conscious than at any previous point in the nation's history. Interest in the population's eating habits was accelerating, both as a matter of vast and competitive business, and as an integral element of public health policy and efforts to reduce heart disease, the main cause of premature death. Recent salmonella and listeria scares only added to this national preoccupation with food.

There were other, sometimes unlikely, straws in a British culinary wind: cookbooks were said to be comprising a greater share of non-fiction sales; vegetarianism was losing its cranky image; TV food programmes were proliferating; and the sacks of barbecue charcoal heaped up outside petrol station kiosks were becoming as familiar as the cartons of semi-skimmed milk on sale inside. Never mind Cuban caf+es in Islington, a Mongolian restaurant was spotted in a Welsh valley.

All this, even before BSE had entered the fray, provided the rationale for the Economic and Social Research Council's first research programme on food choice, the Pounds 1.6 million "The Nation's Diet" programme, whose findings will be presented next Wednesday at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. These findings will provide all manner of landmarks and baselines for the examination of British food choice in the 1990s.

From the outset, one question aroused everyone's curiosity. "Why do people eat what they do?" It was placed at the centre of the brief to be addressed by each of the programme's 18 studies. Change runs through most of the studies, not only because changing food habits feature so prominently in the 1990s dietary landscape, but as an analytic strategy, exposing to investigative view forces otherwise likely to remain concealed.

All of us are faced periodically with some kind of dietary change. The headache presented by small children who refuse to eat any but the most limited diet is not just a problem for the hapless parent, since it is often presumed that the eating patterns established in childhood might be set for life. But Fergus Lowe and his colleagues (University of Wales, Bangor) found that what children eat is a matter of learning, and is thus amenable to change. With parents' cooperation and approval, they mounted a set of bold studies in experimental psychology. They found that after using a combination of video-taped stories of "goodies" and "baddies" incorporating suitable food related story lines and associated rewards, five to seven-year-olds who had previously turned their noses up at apples or avocado, peas or kiwi fruit took to eating them. Fussy eaters were still eating the foods in question when reassessed two months and again six months after the rewards and stories had been discontinued.

Other changes are more benign facts of life. Early results from Annie Anderson, Debbie Kemmer and David Marshall's (universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh) small-scale "before and after" studies of young couples setting up home together suggest a reassuringly familiar picture. The evening meal turned into a specially important part of the day, which couples nurtured as a symbol of their new life together. For the most part, however, even though both were out at work or studying, these young women were more likely to bear the main responsibility for buying and cooking food for the meal.

It is sometimes claimed that one of the social changes affecting food choice is the erosion of the convention that women are to do the cooking. But results from other parts of the programme run along similar lines to those reported from this Scottish study. It seems that the social arrangement tying women to domesticity dies hard.

Domestic change that might be deemed unwelcome was studied by Spencer Henson and his University of Reading team. What happens at home, they wondered, when someone's diet changes? How does the rest of the family react to a unilateral declaration to turn vegetarian? What about everyone else's meals if someone is trying to lose weight, or comes from hospital armed with a diet sheet? After all, there can be a surprising number of immediate practical consequences. New nutritional information may need to be collected, studied and learned - accommodating diabetes is an obvious instance. Buying different foods may mean finding different shops as well as spending more money; adoption of different cooking techniques may need to be remembered as well as practised.

All this could threaten a fairly major domestic upheaval. What appears to happen however, is that instead of overturning existing routines, the change of diet is assimilated into them. Findings so far indicate that it is the woman who orchestrates such change.

Other changes are unequivocally less welcome. Psychological stress may affect food choice either in the cliched form of comfort food or in a disinclination to eat anything when unhappy or under pressure. There was little previous research into this subject. Andrew Steptoe and his team at St George's Hospital Medical School pursued it, not in the laboratory, but under naturalistic conditions. University students were studied at points during the normal academic year and then again a few days before major exams. Shop workers in a large department store were assessed four times over a six-month period covering periods of both high and low workload.

They found that psychological stress affects both the amount and choice of people's food, but that precise dietary patterns vary with the type of stress and the characteristics of the individual. Students displayed increased emotional disturbance in the days leading up to exams, but food intake only altered among the anxiety-prone and socially isolated. Where food selection changed, an increased fat intake was likely. The importance of these findings is that they are not about major but infrequent disturbances such as bereavement or redundancy, but ordinary, daily difficulties to which everyone is regularly exposed.

The nation is ethnically diverse and so too is its diet. Rory Williams (University of Glasgow) and his team tackled the unexpected fact that South Asians and Italians in Britain have, respectively, high and low levels of coronary heart disease. Both groups originate from a peasant-based economy. But it might be expected that South Asians would be less influenced by the "majority culture" and so would have preserved the low-fat diet of the native countries more completely. These are, however, also countries in which women may specialise more exclusively in household roles and food preparation, and where there may have been a history of food scarcity, both of which may predispose migrants to view elaborate cookery, hospitality and large body shapes as signs of success.

Among his conclusions are the salutary reminders that minority communities have very different diet and exercise patterns, and, furthermore, that these vary between migrant and British-born members. Health promotion efforts need to be devised accordingly. The retention of healthy eating patterns in Italian migrants suggests that cultural factors can be harnessed to encourage and preserve Mediterranean diets. But where hospitality conventions are strong, substitution of ingredients is the most promising health strategy, and the exploration of such possibilities should be encouraged in the South Asian and wider food-retail industry.

People cannot make dietary changes if they are hemmed in by other constraints. Low income and high prices represent obvious limits. Trevor Young and his colleagues (Manchester University) mounted a short study into the economics of the decline in the sales of meat. Yes, more people proclaim they are becoming vegetarian, and that no longer signifies their lifestyle is alternative. But perhaps there is something more basic going on, such as changes in meat prices or income.

Young found signs of other reasons besides cost for the decline in meat sales. Those who have steadily given up buying meat are younger householders who are in employment, have more educational qualifications and have no dependent children at home. Those who have not only continued buying meat but spend more on it than others who are still buying, are likely to be older, own a freezer and live in metropolitan areas.

This ties in to work by Ben Fine and his colleagues (School of Oriental and African Studies) confirming distinct patterns of food choice, with purchases varying according to socio-economic characteristics (age, income, class etc). It is ironic that purchases of low-fat food products are increasing, even though purchases of cream and high-fat dairy products have remained steady.

The food supply was examined in the second phase of the programme's work, drawing further attention not only to the manner in which suppliers create a range from which the public selects, but also changes such as the nationalised system of food regulation that is now implemented at local authority level. Preliminary findings from the study run by Terry Marsden and his team (University of Wales, Cardiff) show that although this system is indeed applied throughout the retailing sector, Environmental Health and Trading Standards officers have developed differential patterns of regulatory practice. With the big supermarkets, officers act as external auditors of quality control. This is because these super-league retailers have become increasingly responsible for their own regulation. But with the more diffuse independent sector, officers are advisers and educators.

This research demonstrates that, although economic constraints sometimes determine people's choice of food, they are not the only factor. Threaded through the programme's findings are example after example of social, non-financial constraints on food choice. Alan Warde and Lydia Marten (Lancaster University) found that more than half of their 1,001 city-dwelling respondents claimed to have had no say in where they went the last time they ate out. Marlene Morrison and Bob Burgess (University of Warwick) made a detailed ethnographic study of four schools and found that the essential organisational requirements of keeping the day's activities on schedule meant that the watchword in the dinner hour had to be "eat up", driving a wedge between the educational commitment to healthy eating and the reality of school life.

Overall, The Nation's Diet findings both confirm predictions and open new lines of enquiry. They also provide a better-informed social scientific basis for tracking quite why we eat what we do.

A fuller version of this essay appears in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety published by Manchester University Press in conjunction with The THES, price Pounds 10. Copies can be ordered from News Books, PO Box 345, Falmouth TR11 2YX or telephone 0990 329454.

Anne Murcott is professor of sociology of health at South Bank University and director of the ESRC Nation's Diet programme.

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