What We Think About Food

Economists have been swinging away from the old view that people navigate through life by making rational calculations of advantage. A dietitian could have put them wise about that. Survey data released last month by Synovate shed light on the mishmash of impulses that lie behind people’s choices of food.

A majority of the poll’s U.S. respondents — 78 percent of the women, 61 percent of the men — agreed that “Healthy food makes me feel better.” So, is this the sort of food they eat when in need of an emotional boost? Not necessarily, as 54 percent of women and 35 percent of men also said, “I tend to eat junk food when I am feeling down.” Fifty-nine percent of the men and 63 percent of the women subscribed to the statement, “I watch my food intake carefully and strive to be healthy.” But simple arithmetic tells us this cohort must overlap somewhat with the 46 percent of men and 42 percent of women who agreed that they “like the taste of fast food too much to give it up.” Meanwhile, 43 percent of the men and 32 percent of the women endorsed the statement, “I eat whatever I want, whenever I want.”

What do Americans do when their weight “goes beyond a certain threshold?” Fewer than half the men said they “reduce food intake” (47 percent), a tactic employed by 63 percent of the women. Similarly, a less-than-landslide 51 percent of the women and 33 percent of the men said they “change types of food that you eat.”

Another part of the survey (fielded in February) asked people to cite things they’ve ever used in trying to control their weight. The most mentions went to “low-fat food products” and “home exercise equipment,” each cited by 38 percent of the women and 25 percent of the men. Also scoring in double digits were “low-carbohydrate food products” (17 percent of women, 13 percent of men), “gym membership” (16 percent of women, 13 percent of men) and “meal replacements such as shakes, bars, etc.” (14 percent of women, 11 percent of men).

If people aren’t always vigilant about controlling their weight, many are intent on measuring it. Forty-one percent of the women and 36 percent of the men reported weighing themselves at least once a week — including 15 percent of women and 13 percent of men who do so one or more times a day.