This New Psych Research Could Help You Make Better Food Choices

By Naomi Arbit, PhD, NLC

You know which vitamins your dinner delivers and how much protein is on your plate. But have you ever thought about what that salmon or broccoli you’re enjoying means to you and how that meaning might affect your food choices?

According to new research, connecting with how you derive meaning from food could change how and what you eat—and therefore impact your overall health.

The Background

What do we mean when we say “food meanings”?

My research team and I have defined it as encompassing the ways food is embedded in non-food related aspects of people’s lives and worlds.

In fact, seeing and evaluating our food in terms of the calories and nutrients it provides is a relatively new way of orienting to food. For much of human history, food was evaluated in terms of its spiritual value, purity, ecological availability, and social and cultural implications. Think about the importance of the sacrament, or the laws of kashrut and halal, all of which heavily emphasize the spiritual or religious symbolism of foods.

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Even in our modern food system, there are ways of connecting to food that transcend its nutritive and health aspects. For instance, in recent years there has been increased attention on food’s moral and environmental implications, its cleanliness, and its aesthetic, artisanal, or creative taste profile.

These approaches all capture different food meanings, and this is important because, as our research has shown, the meaning that food holds for people matters greatly when it comes to food choice.

When you see food only in terms of calories, nutrients, taste, availability, and convenience—which is how the majority of Americans relate to food—you miss connections between food choice and the important aspects of a person’s life and world.

The Research

In our research, we found five primary domains of food meanings: aesthetics, health, moral, sacred, and social. We are currently investigating cultural identity as well.

Our key finding is that the domain that is a source of meaning for you will very much inform which foods you eat, as well as the potential environmental situations where you might be cued to eat more.

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Connecting food to important aspects of your world may help you orient yourself more appropriately to the multitude of food options available, make better food choices, and generally feel less anxious about selecting foods. It is important to note, though, that not all domains are associated with healthier dietary intakes.

While the sacred, moral, and health meanings are generally associated with healthier dietary patterns, in the US, the social and aesthetic meanings are associated with slightly less healthy dietary patterns.

This will differ from person to person and across cultures, but the key point is that the meaning matters.

What This Means For You

A meaning-based approach to food takes into account what food means to you and why, and makes the relationship more conscious, to inform the selection of better food choices and increase your overall wellbeing.

For example, people who derive meaning from the social aspects of eating might use their knowledge of this to more purposefully structure their meals around social occasions and reduce their food intake in non-social settings, such as when snacking.

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Similarly, people who find meaning from the moral aspects of their food choices might think about deliberately aligning their food choices with their ethical principles, if they are not already so aligned. This might involve eating more local or organic food, vegetarian or vegan food, or simply less meat.

Overall, a shift away from the caloric and weight-loss implications of food choice to the meaning-conferring benefits of people’s relationships with food might not only alleviate some of the anxiety around food and eating, but can help people orient to food in a healthier, more constructive way.

food choicesAbout Naomi:

Naomi holds her PhD in Behavioral Nutrition, as well as masters degrees in Bioethics and Positive Psychology. Alongside her studies, Naomi has taught yoga for almost a decade and recently completed training to teach mindful self compassion.

In her integrative wellness practice, she integrates her psychology an nutrition background with mind-body practices that ultimately allow her clients to listen to, gain appreciation for, and take deep, nourishing care of their bodies. Her unique three-pronged approach addresses the mind, body, and spirit of her clients to create long-lasting improvements in health and wellbeing. Visit her website at and follow her on Instagram at @nourishtoflourishnyc.

How to Deal With People Who Judge Your Food Choices

Healthy food choices can inspire all kinds of judge-y comments.

For instance, does this sound familiar? “Surprise, surprise! Keri’s eating kale again.” (Cue laughter.)

It can make family gatherings, dinners with friends, and especially potlucks, uncomfortable. You want to just relax and enjoy a great meal and pleasant conversation and yet your Uncle Bob needs to ask you how anyone could survive without meat and potatoes over and over and over. (If you’re a health or wellness professional like a nutritionist or trainer, this is likely an issue many of your clients will ask you about handling, too.)

But you don’t need to scrap all of your healthy eating habits in order to make the people around you happy. Try these five tips to manage the judgement with grace…and good food.

How to Deal with People Who Judge Your Food Choices

  1. Be firm, but don’t make a huge deal out of it. Grandstanding about being gluten-free isn’t going to help. Making a big announcement about what you will and won’t eat isn’t necessary and will provoke the judgment you’re trying to avoid. If you make your food choices without making a fuss, others may not even notice you’re cutting back on sugar, and you won’t offend a host who prepared food you’re going to pass on.
  2. Remember that it’s not about you. Why would anyone even care if you eat a carrot instead of a cookie? When people judge the way you eat, they’re projecting their own insecurities onto you. To avoid getting defensive, remind yourself it’s not really about you, and you’ll be able to react from a place of calm.
  3. Have a comeback ready. If you’re walking into a situation where you know judgement and comment are inevitable, have a go-to response ready in advance. Choose something that works for you in terms of deflecting the comment, whether that’s an expression of pride (“Yes, I’m feeling so great since I started eating healthy!”), a joke, or totally changing the subject.
  4. Think about if the situation were reversed. If you’re tempted to “just eat” something you really don’t want to just to make someone else happy, ask yourself if they’d do the same for you. Often, the people who are most judgemental are not the ones who’d graciously try your Sweet Potato Cupcakes if you were the one hosting. Eat for you, not for someone else.
  5. Tap into how good you feel eating good food. When you eat good food, you feel great because you’re treating yourself well. Harness that feeling and focus on healthy, happy vibes, which will counter the judge-y ones that threaten to ruin the gathering.

In the end, you don’t ever have to be rude or a stickler about food choices, but it’s not fair to feel like you have to totally change your diet to satisfy other people’s appetites, either.