Promoting more healthful food practices is a central goal for policy makers and health professionals in many high-income countries.
The Scottish Government and local authorities have a number of policies and strategies aimed at improving the healthfulness of eating habits including Recipe for Success, Revised Dietary Guidelines, and Good Food Nation because it has been well established that a poor diet can have serious health implications, including increasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Results from the Scottish health survey indicate that further work still needs to be done if the desired changes in food practices are to be realised. It has been suggested that these desired dietary changes have not been realised in part because the food practices acquired during childhood are difficult to break.
The relationship between dietary guidelines, understandings of them and the healthfulness of food practices is very complex and these issues were explored in a recent study, Understanding Food Practices in Scotland. This study involved carry out in-depth interviews with 31 adults across Scotland, who also kept a four-day food diary.
Results indicated that eating patterns acquired in our childhood can shape habits throughout our life, and, the habits are likely to be resistant to attempts by others to change them. However, eating patterns may be more likely to change if the impetus for change is linked to the circumstances of the individual. Changes to eating habits are more likely to be informed by dietary guidelines when individuals view their eating patterns as problematic.
This study also highlighted that most people seem to have a reasonable understanding of dietary guidelines which informed their personal food rules, even though they do not always adhere to them. However, this study highlighted the importance of limiting the degree to which people deviate from their desired food practices if they are to maintain healthful eating habits.
A need for a greater understanding of food practices throughout our life from individuals’ perspectives was clearly evident and a more objective means of evaluating the accuracy of how we understand dietary guidelines and the healthfulness of eating patterns is needed.
Nonetheless, the study does raise the possibility that efforts to improve the healthfulness of people’s diets could involve targeting individuals at certain stages of their life, as this study revealed a greater willingness of individuals to reassess their diets and personal food rules at particular times in their life.
The study also suggests it may be useful to raise awareness of occasions when individuals are more likely to break healthy eating food rules and to construct a food environment that would support adherence to desired food practices and the maintenance of a more healthful diet.
The researchers aim to develop this study further by securing funding for PhD scholarship which intends to adopt a multi-methodological and inter-disciplinary approach to provide a more objective means of assessing the relationship between dietary guidelines, understanding of them and eating practices.
The research was funded by the Scottish Government through the Strategic Research Programme 2011-2016.