Theses Doctoral

Theoretical Foundations and Preliminary Empirical Results for the Meaning of Food in Life Project

Arbit, Naomi I.

In this dissertation, a new construct is introduced as a means for systematically assessing the meanings associated with eating behavior and food choice. There are many determinants of food choice that have been operationalized throughout the health behavior literature. Some factors are instrumental, external, and/or immediate, whereas others are more global, higher-order and distal from the process of food selection and eating. However, the literature still lacks a comprehensive construct for systematically assessing the ways that food is related to people’s larger meaning systems, systems composed of durable and enduring values, goals and beliefs. The Meaning of Food in Life (MFL) project was therefore designed to operationalize the construct of the MFL as well as explore how this, in turn, influences food choice.
First we introduce the theoretical basis for systematically operationalizing and investigating the MFL, and then explore its relationship to food choice, moral psychology and wellbeing. We articulate a clear definition of the meaning of food; namely, that for something to constitute a food meaning it must be connected to or embedded in a person’s life-world, in contrast to orientations to food rooted in the proximal and immediate demands of the eating situation. Then, over three separate studies, we developed and validated a questionnaire that assesses the meaning of food in life, and demonstrate the ways that different food meanings are linked with different food-related attitudes, motivations and behaviors.
In Study 1, we present the development and validation of an assessment tool for empirically measuring the MFL. In this investigation we operationalize the MFL and generate a 22-item tool for its assessment. The items were tested in an online format in three empirical studies (n = 560), and participants were recruited through MTurk. Exploratory factor analyses and item analysis were conducted to confirm the psychometric characteristics of the item pool. Overall, five distinct domains of food meanings emerged: moral, sacred, health, social, and aesthetic. Each domain of food meaning was significantly associated with different dietary intake outcomes, providing evidence for construct validity. Further, each dimension of food meaning displayed associations with psychologically similar, yet distinct constructs from the literature in a manner concordant with the theoretical specifications of each construct, providing further validity evidence. The associations between the different domains of food meanings and behavioral outcomes suggest that this construct may be an important and clinically relevant aspect of people’s relationship to food that has heretofore lacked systematic investigation.
Study 2 evaluated how the five domains of the MFL, namely, moral, sacred, social, aesthetic and health, relate to determinants of healthy eating behavior and a positive relationship to food. We administered a questionnaire to an online sample of 252 American participants. Measures included demographics, the MFL, self-efficacy for eating healthy foods, a positive relationship to food, fruit and vegetable (F&V) stage of change, calorie restriction, and body satisfaction. Data were analyzed using correlation and regression analyses. Results demonstrate that the moral, aesthetic and health domains of the MFL were positively associated with greater self-efficacy for consuming healthy foods (all p < .001), and the moral and health domains were positively associated with greater body satisfaction (both p < .01). All five MFL domains were positively associated with F&V stage of change (all p < .01) and a positive relationship to food (all p < .05, or less), whereas none were associated with calorie restriction. These data suggest that the MFL has clinical health relevance in the form of promoting healthier dietary behavior and a positive relationship to food.
The discourse around food has shifted in recent years, fueled by growing concerns over the environment, animal welfare, and public health issues such as obesity. One domain that hasn't yet been considered in terms of its relation to food choice is that of compassion and self-compassion, independent yet related constructs encompassing a concern for the suffering of others or the self, accompanied by a desire to alleviate that suffering. In Study 3, we investigated the associations between compassion, self-compassion, the meaning of food in life, healthy and sustainable eating behavior, and a willingness to pay higher prices to ensure environmental protection and animal welfare.
We collected data from 254 subjects via MTurk. Results indicate that compassion was significantly linked with behavior that entailed reducing the suffering of others, demonstrated by the negative associations between compassion and meat intake (p < .05), and the positive links between compassion and limiting intake of fast food (p < .05) as well as a willingness to pay higher prices to ensure animal welfare (p < .001). Self-compassion was positively associated with making healthier choices for the individual, indicated by significant associations with increased vegetable intake (p < .01), and with limiting intake of candy, soda and processed foods (all p < .05). For many of the dietary outcomes, both self-compassion and compassion made unique and significant contributions, suggesting their effects may be additive and potentially influence dietary behavior through different mechanisms. This preliminary investigation should pave the way for future investigations into these relationships and their potential applications.
Overall, this research project generated the theoretical and empirical foundations for operationalizing the MFL as a determinant of food choice. We came up with a definition for the meaning of food, namely, that for something to constitute a food meaning it must be embedded in a person’s larger life-world, rather than be limited to the immediate demands of the eating situation. While there already exist several measures that measure motivations for eating across the board, as well as measures that measure the proximal factors which influence eating, to our knowledge, this is the first study to exclusively focus on and operationalize the distal factors which influence food choice – the factors which, by definition, are non-immediate, and which are connected to non-food aspects of life. These non-food related aspects of eating life, as our empirical data have shown, include moral and value-based orientations to food, the social and cultural importance of food and eating, the sacred or spiritual connections between people’s food choice and belief systems, the meaningfulness of nourishing one’s body in a healthy fashion, and the aesthetic dimensions of food, whereby food is seen to be an arena for creativity and artistic expression. Our repeated empirical investigations confirmed that the five domains of moral, social, sacred, health and aesthetic consistently emerge as distinct factors that influence food choice.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Behavioral Nutrition
Thesis Advisors
Contento, Isobel
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 6, 2017