Psychology: North American Food Habits and Rituals

Food, water, shelter and clothing are the basic necessities of life, so why has food behaviour not been extensively studied by psychologists beyond “psychobiology” and “psychopathology”? Although it is abundantly clear that food can have various psychological effects, Leon Rappaport, in the book How We Eat: Appetite, culture, and the psychology of food (2003), states that “the social and cultural significance of food has traditionally been assigned to anthropology,” but with few exceptions. “Psychologists have been interested in food primarily from the standpoint of either psychobiology — the sensory and neural processes related to taste, obesity, and alcoholism – or psychopathology – the social-emotional problems associated with anorexia and bulimia” (pp21- 22). However, the most important reason that the psychological — and other social sciences — study of food remained unimportant is because until the 1980’s, food was not considered much of a problem. During this decade, medical findings began to “emphasize the significance of diet to health” and “food behaviours began to gain a much higher academic status” (Rappoport, 2003. pp22-23).

Whether from our parents or learned from primal ancestors, the way we eat and gather our food is all learned behaviour. Throughout history, individuals have directly or indirectly “foraged” for food throughout regions of the world. Even though most ‘Westerners’ don’t participate in typical forms of foraging, like hunting and gathering, it is still embedded in our genes today.  “Anthropological research indicates that… [developing food preferences based on admiration of another] is fundamentally primitive. It can be traced back to our hunter ancestors, who apparently admired powerful animals and believed that they could gain some of that strength by eating parts of the animals’ bodies – the heart of the lion, perhaps, or even something from the dead body of a powerful enemy warrior” (Rappoport, 2003. pp55).

Our copy cat food foraging habits have changed over the years, but present themselves in our current food behaviours. All of this social concerns to be thinner, healthier, or even consume more organic foods may simply be, for some, the pursuit to “improve [an existing] social position or take on admired qualities of a celebrity” (Rappoport, 2003. pp55). We also have our symbolic types of foraging, such as research within health food stores, web pages, and health magazines. Others also adopt dietary practices recommended by health gurus and medical celebrities (Rappoport, 2003. pp49).  All of this food frenzy suggests that food behaviours in this context are subconsciously or consciously acted upon in order to form an identity for oneself. The industrialization of our food system has not only changed the availabillty of food but also the societal norms that surround it. Food has unintentionally determined the fads and fashions that impact our lives. The availability of food has changed it from an essential life source to a coping mechanism, a means of oppression, a political power structure, a best friend, a worst enemy or even a killer.

Western pathology is a culture based on “eating too much and eating too little” (Rappoport, 2003. pp77). Rappoport (2003) says that “there is no convenient way to summarize the various direct and indirect connections between food and personality” (pp. 74).  However, the generalized study of eating disorders can “reveal the complex social and psychological dynamics that can distort food behaviours” (pp. 77). For example, “heavy, rapid eating may be a habitual adult defence against the childhood fear of not getting enough or of food not being available the next time he or she is hungry” (Rappoport, 2003. Pp57). Conversely, being overweight or obese can not only put one in the way of multiple health disorders but also social stigma and oppression. However, Rappoport argues that “[i]t is more a matter of aesthetics and, perhaps even more importantly, a psychological effect of the new industrial and urban environments that emerged most emphatically in North America and Western Europe early in the 20th Century. With the start of the machine age and all the technological changes associated with it, including new food processing, distribution, and consumption pattern, heavy bodies became as obsolete as the horse and buggy, [and the] labour intensive activities that once justified them” (pp. 79).

What we eat is made up of more than just the physical food itself. Often times, food carries with it a greater value in its monetary exchange than consumption, and can be used socially as a way to oppress others (Rappoport, 2003. pp. 105). The global food system is rich with politics, moral ambiguity, and is surrounded with injustice (Rappoport, 2003. pp.129). All in all, its not just what we eat but how we eat that affects our behaviour around food. The way we understand food has changed over many years with the industrialization of global food production. Therefore, our perceptions and consumption is forever changing and adapting to the world around us.


Rappoport, L. (2003). How We Eat: Appetite, culture, and the psychology of food. Toronto, ON: CEW Press.


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