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Understanding Food Practices in Scotland - Blog Update

Understanding Food Practices in Scotland - Blog Update

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Promoting more healthful food practices is a central goal for policy makers and health professionals in many high-income countries, but it isn’t easy to achieve.

This blog adds to an earlier SEFARI blog which presented findings from a study of eating patterns in Scotland. This update includes the publication of two articles in peer-reviewed journals with the first examining when eating habits may be revised in light of dietary guidelines across the lifecourse and the other exploring how some people are able to construct and maintain healthy eating habits whilst others may struggle. In addition, we report the appointment of a RESAS funded PhD researcher to develop the research further through a study of healthful and environmentally sustainable eating patterns across the lifecourse.

The Scottish Government and local authorities have a number of policies and strategies aimed at improving the healthfulness of eating habits. However, 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.  In particular, 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 complex relationship between dietary guidelines, understandings of them and the healthfulness of food practices was explored in a recent study, Understanding Food Practices in Scotland. This study involved in-depth interviews with 31 adults across Scotland, who also kept a four-day food diary. The results have been published in two peer-reviewed papers.

The first, in Food, Culture and Society, indicated that eating patterns acquired in childhood can shape food habits throughout life and that these are likely to be resistant to attempts by others to change them. However, eating patterns may be more likely to be modified if the impetus is linked to changes in the individuals’ circumstances. These modifications are more likely to be informed by dietary guidelines when individuals view their eating patterns as problematic. 

The second paper, published in Food and Foodways, identifies how some people are able to construct and maintain a healthful diet whilst others struggle. Our participants seemed to have an understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet that is in reasonable alignment with dietary guidelines, along with a desire to uphold healthful eating habits. This was indicated when participants spoke about their food rules, principles typically aimed at shaping the healthfulness of their food practices, such as eating a range of fruit and vegetables and trying to maintain a low-fat and low-sugar diet. However, they also reported occasions when they broke their food rules, such as when emotionally upset or busy at work. This often resulted in eating habits that participants considered unhealthful. However, those participants who consistently limited the degree to which they broke their food rules by imposing rules for breaking food rules constructed and maintained eating patterns they considered healthful. The resulting eating patterns also appeared to be more in line with dietary guidelines than those who did not.

The results of this study raise the possibility that efforts to improve the healthfulness of people’s diets could involve targeting individuals at certain transitional stages and/or turning points across their lifecourse. That is because this study revealed a greater willingness of individuals to reassess their diets and personal food rules at particular times in their life, such as when they move out of the parental home or when they develop a food related health problem. 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 encourage them to impose rules for breaking their food rules on these occasions. Encouragement to do so could be facilitated by providing consistent nutritional advice and flagging up healthy options in food outlets.

Altogether, this study indicates a need for: a greater understanding of individuals’ perspectives on their day-to-day food practices as these evolve throughout their life: and a more effective means of evaluating the accuracy of how people understand dietary guidelines and the healthfulness of eating patterns.

This study was conducted by SEFARI researchers Dr David Watts and Dr John McKenzie and was funded by the Scottish Government through the Strategic Research Programme 2011-2016.

The researchers now want to build on this study through a RESAS funded PhD studentship which will use a multi-methodological and inter-disciplinary approach to provide a more effective means of assessing the relationship between dietary guidelines, people’s understanding of them and their eating practices.

Therefore, further RESAS funding is allowing this research to be developed by the appointment a PhD researcher Kieran Fowler. Kieran joins us having recently completed a research intern post with the Scottish Scientific Advisory Council (SSAC) on Scottish Government commissioned work regarding Scotland’s food systems, see also his recent co-authored paper. In his PhD project ‘The healthfulness and sustainability of food practices across the lifecourse of adults in Scotland’, Kieran aims to extend this previous strand of research to include environmentally sustainable as well as healthy eating patterns. Kieran explains his research here.

Scottish Dietary goals, alongside the Good Food Nation legislative framework, have placed an importance on improving dietary practices across the Scottish population. The goals include rebalancing dietary intakes to include more fruits and vegetables and less calorie-dense foods high in fat, salts and sugars.  In order to effectively implement the Good Food Nation Act and achieve the ambitious Scottish Dietary goals – successful dissemination of nutritional guidance will be one amongst a host of key factors. The Scottish Government’s nutritional guidance, delivered through Food Standards Scotland, is increasingly focussing on the healthfulness of the population’s diet as well as embedding sustainable eating practices through their dietary guidelines.

This PhD project attempts to achieve a greater understanding of how people acquire their perceptions of what constitutes a healthy and sustainable diet. In particular, the project is interested in how people in Scotland interact with official sustainable and healthful dietary guidance and, based on this, go about constructing a diet in light of it. Therefore, this project will explore the phenomena of how people’s diets are formulated through adopting a lifecourse approach.

By investigating the interface between dietary guidelines and eating patterns, Kieran believes that this PhD project can provide valuable insights into the relationship between people in Scotland's actual realised dietary behaviours and official dietary guidelines available. Such insights will be invaluable in designing future public health nutritional policies and we’re all looking forward to seeing how this project develops.

Dr David Watts, Dr John McKenzie and Kieran Fowler.