How people interpret healthy eating: contributions of qualitative research

J Nutr Educ Behav. Jul-Aug 2012;44(4):282-301. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2011.11.009.


Objective: To identify how qualitative research has contributed to understanding the ways people in developed countries interpret healthy eating.

Design: Bibliographic database searches identified reports of qualitative, empirical studies published in English, peer-reviewed journals since 1995.

Data analysis: Authors coded, discussed, recoded, and analyzed papers reporting qualitative research studies related to participants' interpretations of healthy eating.

Results: Studies emphasized a social constructionist approach, and most used focus groups and/or individual, in-depth interviews to collect data. Study participants explained healthy eating in terms of food, food components, food production methods, physical outcomes, psychosocial outcomes, standards, personal goals, and as requiring restriction. Researchers described meanings as specific to life stages and different life experiences, such as parenting and disease onset. Identity (self-concept), social settings, resources, food availability, and conflicting considerations were themes in participants' explanations for not eating according to their ideals for healthy eating.

Implications: People interpret healthy eating in complex and diverse ways that reflect their personal, social, and cultural experiences, as well as their environments. Their meanings include but are broader than the food composition and health outcomes considered by scientists. The rich descriptions and concepts generated by qualitative research can help practitioners and researchers think beyond their own experiences and be open to audience members' perspectives as they seek to promote healthy ways of eating.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Focus Groups
  • Food Preferences*
  • Health Behavior
  • Health Education*
  • Humans
  • Qualitative Research