Temptation lurks around every corner, making a commitment to healthy eating especially important. Psychologists have done plenty of research on effective self-control–overcoming the urge to eat unhealthy foods–but new research has taken a different approach to figuring out what kind of person tends to eat healthfully.
Recently, a handful of psychologists have proposed that healthy eating can depend on a mix of how you view yourself and what culture you live in.
The idea that health and culture go together isn’t new. Plenty of people think that the U.S. encourages a culture of junk food and laziness, and people have also been looking at so-called “blue zones,” which are areas in the world where people routinely live to be 100.
Some parts of the world seem to be healthier than others, and proponents of healthy eating often point to the specific diets in these areas–diets that focus on fish and vegetables.
But just because some cultures have healthier diets on average, there’s still high value placed on the pursuit of health eating. In other words, people in both the U.S. and other countries like Japan think that eating healthfully is a virtue to aspire to uphold. The question is: who ends up eating healthfully in these different cultures? Psychologists have proposed that it comes down to cultural values.
A Quick Intro to Cultural Psychology
One major distinction that cultural psychologists have made is between independence and interdependence. These two ways of thinking about your place in the world show clear, reliable global patterns.
The United States (and other western cultures) tends to value independence. That is, people in these cultures tend to base their decisions on personal preferences and goals for themselves. They’re raised to “be themselves” and embrace what makes them unique from others.
Japan (and other East Asian cultures) instead tend to value interdependence. People in these cultures are more focused on relationship harmony, satisfying their social roles, and accommodating other people’s needs. They’re raised to maintain their place in society and follow established norms.
This all brings us to a recent set of studies looking at healthy eating in different cultures. These studies examined thousands of people in the United States and Japan, asking everyone to report their eating habits, including how often they drank sugary drinks, and how often they ate various types of meat and vegetables.
Healthy Eating in the United States
Even though American culture tends to be rooted in independence, people can still adopt a range of perspectives. Some might embrace the American norm and emphasize independence, but others could still choose to emphasize interdependence even if it goes again the dominant cultural value.
The results of these studies, however, showed that in the U.S., the more someone personally adopts a perspective of independence, the more he or she is likely to eat healthfully.
In other words, when an individual’s own view of himself matches that of his culture, he’s more likely to pursue the virtuous act of eating healthy. The researchers went a step further, though, and showed that these benefits for a healthy diet were because these people used their diets as a way to take control and show autonomy.
Healthy Eating in Japan
The same kind of pattern occurred in Japan. Like in the U.S., people in Japan can adopt a perspective of independence even though it’s not consistent with the dominant cultural value.
Nevertheless, the point remains that in Japan, the more someone personally adopts a perspective of interdependence, the more he or she is likely to eat healthfully.
Again, it’s the people whose own views align with those of their culture who consume healthier diets. In this case, though, the researchers found that this was because they had more positive relations with others, which relates to healthier choices.
When You Fit With Your Culture
What’s going on here? The results clearly show that people tend to consume healthier diets when their personal views are consistent with those of the culture they live in. For Americans, that’s independnece (seeing oneself as unique), but for Japanese individuals, that’s interdependence (seeing oneself as part of a larger collective).
Psychologists have called this cultural fit–it’s what happens anytime there’s a match between an individual and his or her culture. And it’s not just good for healthy eating…
Other studies have shown that cultural fit can be key to happiness, too. One of these studies looked at how much individuals’ personalities matched the prevailing personality traits represented within a culture. The more a person’s own personality matched their culture, the happier she was and the higher her self-esteem was. Another study showed that people had greater well-being when their emotional style matched that of their culture.
On Health and Culture
Together, these studies highlight the simple fact that healthy eating depends on how well you personally align with the values of your culture. The more you feel like you fit in, the more you embrace what your culture finds virtuous–in this case, healthy eating.