What factors influence our decisions about what we eat?

Eating is a complex behaviour embedded in social and environmental context. Dr Rebecca Leech is exploring combinations of foods at meals and snacks across the day and identifying connections around food choices at different eating occasions.

Dr Leech’s aim is to identify pathways through which everyday contextual factors influence food choices at meals and snacks, and their role in cardiovascular health.

Her project is funded through both a National Heart Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship and a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Investigator Grant.

Having performed a detailed analysis of patterns of food intake at breakfast and snack occasions, she has discovered five breakfast and four snack food combination patterns. These patterns varied in diet quality and were associated with socio-demographic factors and selected cardiovascular risk factors.

“For example, men with a ‘breads, spreads and tea or coffee’ breakfast pattern tended to be older, have lower incomes and live in an inner regional area, when compared to the other patterns,” Dr Leech explained.

“This is in contrast to men with a wholegrain cereals and milks breakfast pattern who tended to have higher incomes and education levels.”

Both women and men with a wholegrain cereals and milks breakfast pattern had the most favourable outcomes in terms of BMI and waist circumference.

Dr Leech has discovered four distinct snack food combination patterns that varied by time-of-day of consumption and sociodemographic factors. The first pattern was characterised by tea/coffee, milks and sweet cereal products; the second included breads, crackers, spreads and fillings; the third comprised mostly unhealthy discretionary foods; the fourth pattern included alcohol for men; and the fifth pattern featured fruit for women.

Snack patterns comprising mostly unhealthy foods or alcohol tended to be consumed in the afternoon or evening. Men with an ‘alcohol’ pattern were more likely to be smokers whereas women with a ‘fruit’ profile tended to be never smokers, when compared to the other patterns.

“Of concern is that the ‘unhealthy’ pattern represented 50 per cent of all snacks consumed,” Dr Leech noted.

Dr Leech’s next study will utilise advances in dietary assessment technology, such as wearable cameras, to capture information about the broader context in which food choices are made.

“This information will help us to understand how contextual factors such as social interactions, purchasing habits, food advertising and screen behaviours affect our intake of healthy and unhealthy foods,” she said.

Dr Leech hopes her research will inform the development of practical meal-based dietary advice that will help people to choose combinations of foods, based on the five nutritious food groups: grains; vegetables and legumes; fruit; dairy and alternatives; and lean meat/poultry and alternatives (e.g. fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, tofu).   

“Understanding how context affects our food choices will allow us so to identify which strategies are most likely to be effective to promote heart healthy eating patterns, and subsequently reduce the growing burden of cardiovascular disease in Australia,” she said.