Planting seeds of change: reconceptualizing what people eat as eating practices and patterns

Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2021 Mar 4;18(1):32. doi: 10.1186/s12966-021-01102-1.


Language focused on individual dietary behaviors, or alternatively, lifestyle choices or decisions, suggests that what people eat and drink is primarily a choice that comes down to free will. Referring to and intervening upon food consumption as though it were a freely chosen behavior has an inherently logical appeal due to its simplicity and easily defined targets of intervention. However, despite decades of behavioral interventions, population-level patterns of food consumption remain suboptimal. This debate paper interrogates the manner in which language frames how problems related to poor diet quality are understood and addressed within society. We argue that referring to food consumption as a behavior conveys the idea that it is primarily a freely chosen act that can be ameliorated through imploring and educating individuals to make better selections. Leveraging practice theory, we subsequently propose that using the alternative language of eating practices and patterns better conveys the socially situated nature of food consumption. This language may therefore point to novel avenues for intervention beyond educating and motivating individuals to eat more healthfully, to instead focus on creating supportive contexts that enable sustained positive dietary change. Clearly, shifting discourse will not on its own transform the science and practice of nutrition. Nevertheless, the seeds of change may lie in aligning our terminology, and thus, our framing, with desired solutions.

Keywords: Dietary behaviors; Eating patterns; Eating practices; Framing; Socioecological model.

MeSH terms

  • Diet*
  • Feeding Behavior* / physiology
  • Feeding Behavior* / psychology
  • Humans
  • Motivation / physiology*