Nutrition psychology (NP) is the psychological study of how cognitive choices, such as meal decisions, influence nutrition, psychological health, and overall health. Nutrition psychology seeks to understand the relationship between nutritional behavior and mental health/well-being. NP is a sub-field of psychology and more specifically of health psychology. It may be applied to numerous different fields including: psychology, dietetics, nutrition, and marketing. NP is a fairly new field with a brief history that has already started to contribute information and knowledge to psychology. There are two main areas of controversy within nutrition psychology. The first area of controversy is that the topic can be viewed as nutrition affecting psychological functions or can be viewed as psychological choices and behavior influencing nutrition and health. The second controversy being the defining of what is "healthy" or "normal" as related to nutrition.
Nutrition is defined as "the act or process of nourishing or being nourished; specifically: the sum of the processes by which an animal or plant takes in and utilizes food substances" and psychology is defined as "the study of mind and behavior in relation to a particular field of knowledge or activity," in this case the particular field is nutrition. Therefore, nutrition psychology is the study of mind and behavior in relation to the process of taking in and utilizing food.
Today, over one third of American adults are considered "obese" and nutrition psychology aims to explain what psychological reasons may be behind this and other health trends. Nutrition psychology looks at the internal psychological effects of why people do what they do, and how they are shaped and influenced by outside stimuli.
Origins and development
Nutrition psychology is a field that is still in its early stages of development. With obesity a continually growing problem in the United States and abroad, nutrition psychology is gaining importance and popularity in society today. As it has grown, nutrition psychology has directly and indirectly influenced research on dieting, food labels, the way food is marketed, food technology, obesity, and the attitude of the public towards food, among other topics.
Some research discusses the idea of "Food faddism," which is loosely defined as, the idea that too much weight is put upon the influence of food and diet on overall health and that claims, whether good or bad, are often exaggerated. This idea of food choices having extreme consequences is thought to be deeply ingrained into culture, possibly stemming from the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit.
In 1990, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required that nutrition labels be put on food products in the United States. The thought behind doing so was to provide consumers with the necessary information to make educated decisions about the foods that they purchased. Since that time, nutrition psychologists have done research on how influential these labels are on how consumers choose what foods to buy. These studies have shown mixed results concerning the effects of nutritional labeling. According to the research, the average consumer does tend to read the labels and take the information into consideration, in part because companies have begun producing foods with more health-conscious ingredients. However, many of these potential health benefits are overshadowed by the continuing increase in obesity and deaths related to obesity in the United States over the last few decades.
As with any industry, marketing plays an important role in the buying and selling of food products. Marketing campaigns for food and beverages are increasingly prevalent today and are larger in scope than ever before, given the resources that large corporations are able to use in the forms of social media and viral marketing. Some researchers claim that the dramatic rise in obesity rates are at least in part, due to an increase in the marketing of food over the past 30 years. New marketing strategies have taken many forms, including changing the packaging of the food or beverage itself, product placement in media, advertisements in schools, increased focus on "value meals" with larger portions, and endorsements by athletes or celebrities. Many of these methods increase exposure to younger consumers, who studies show, tend to be more impressionable than adults and whose eating patterns as children can continue long into their adult lives.
Recently, food has been a source of technological development. Nutrition psychologists have studied the public's perception of food technology such as genetic modification or additives that may extend the shelf life of food, among other topics. In general, the findings show that the average consumer is more likely to avoid food that is affected by technology and will prefer organic, all-natural choices. These technological effects are often perceived by consumers to pose health risks, even if those claims are not founded in facts.
Nutrition psychology has many applications not only related to how and what people eat on a day-to-day basis, but also the ways in which and why they diet and exercise. Fad diets are popular in today's society and they usually play heavily on potential customers' ideals about what they should weigh or look like. These diets usually include an extreme condition or restriction on a person's food intake that supposedly will result in weight loss. People become attracted to these weight loss claims because of the potential ease with which the weight loss can happen. However, these claims are not always founded in scientific research.
In popular culture
The 2004 documentary film, Super Size Me, directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock focuses on the ways in which the fast food industry in America is influencing how people and especially young children, view nutrition.
- Health psychology
- Fad diet
- Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion
- Genetically modified food controversies
- Nutrition label
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