When we know what to eat to be healthy... and the reasons we don’t

When it comes to changing the way you eat, there are so many factors to consider. I have clients all the time who say 'I know how to eat healthily, I just need to do it'. Why is it that we know what to do yet we don’t do it? There are so many factors affecting the way we choose food and interact with food.

Seeing a registered nutritionist or dietitian doesn’t mean admitting that you don’t know what is healthy for you - it means realising that sometimes having an outside perspective can help us unpick the tangle we get ourselves into around food. It takes degree level study (usually three years) to become a registered nutritionist or dietitian, so you would hope they know more about how food affects our health than the average member of the public!

Seven factors that affect our food choice

1. Time

We wouldn’t have programmes like 15-minute meals if we all had loads of time to prepare a meal. You can eat healthily without much time, but there are lots of tricks which can help, including meal planning, having simple meals which have a good balance across the eat well guide, and bulk cooking.

2. Money

I am a big believer in the importance of good nutrition, and that this should not be a luxury for the rich. Simple money-saving advice like shopping with a list, not shopping when hungry, using frozen and tinned vegetables and fruit, taking advantage of special offers (but checking if they really are that special), bulk cooking, using pulses to replace some of the meat in meals, reducing reliance on big brands, and cooking sauces like pasta sauce from scratch can all help us keep control of our spending.

3. Emotions

This is too big a topic to unpack here, but a health professional will be able to spend the time helping you work out the emotional triggers to eating. It is good to have emotions, and there should be pleasure responses when you eat, but when they become tangled and we try and solve our emotions through eating, we can end up in a vicious cycle.

4. Access

Whether it is because you live a long way from the shops, your local shops don’t have good quality affordable food, you don’t have access to a fridge at work, you have limited cooking facilities at home, or someone else is responsible for food and you have no control over it, access is a big issue, and for someone who carries the shopping for a family of four home from the bus stop (10 minutes walk away), I know how heavy and challenging it can be.

5. Health

As sad as it is to say, our health can have an impact on what we eat, and even though eating well might help to reduce the burden of our illness, it feels impossible to overcome the barriers. Enlisting the help of others is essential here. It is good to have a bank of recipes which are quick and easy, and things you will enjoy to help in this. It obviously depends on the illness, so with the right support the meals can be tailored to the individual. For example, if you are requiring carers to come and they only have time to prepare a ready meal in the microwave, having support to choose the best possible options can make a huge difference to the palatability and nutrition of the meal. Equally, if standing is an issue, finding meals which have a lot of the preparation done for you but can still have a healthy balance is key. One to one support to find things which will work for you will make the world of difference.

6. Preference

We all like certain foods more than others. There may be lots of things you don’t like. There may also be things you don’t eat for religious or cultural reasons, too. Finding the best possible nutrition balance from the things you do eat is key here. You might even be encouraged to try something new within the parameters you are comfortable with.

7. Skills and knowledge

Notice I put this a long way down the list, but it does have an impact on our food choice. Learning cooking skills, how to read a label or more about nutrition are a few of the ways to reduce this barrier. It is not about being uneducated, it is about learning more about food when you already know lots about other areas of life.

Hopefully this article has helped you understand some of the complexity surrounding food choice. I have not listed all the factors - just the ones which come up time and time again in my conversations with people. There is no judgement from a good registered nutritionist or dietitian. We are human, and we do understand the challenges too.

Have a think about which barriers are the biggest for you and consider getting some help to break down those barriers. This is not about putting you on a weight loss plan – you might well be a healthy weight – this is about giving your body the best nutrition within the parameters of everyday life to be the healthiest your body can be.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Manchester, Greater Manchester, M20
Written by Aliya Porter, Registered Nutritionist BSc Hons RNutr
Manchester, Greater Manchester, M20

I am a Registered Nutritionist based in Manchester.

I have a special interest in improving the health and wellbeing of individuals of all ages and families of all shapes and sizes, and all budgets.

I have experience in the voluntary sector, NHS & private practice.

I offer face to face and Skype consultations as well as workshops and courses.

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