Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Food Preferences

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
Food Preferences

People tend to have different food preferences. Whether this may be having a preference towards spicy or bland food or, a preference for meat/vegetarian-based diets. Psychologists have proposed theories to explain why these food preferences exist. Commonly, food preferences are primarily thought to result from biological mechanisms such as taste buds. However, psychologists have shown that cultural, learning behaviours and evolutionary processes influence food preferences.

What would be the definition of food preferences?

Food preferences express a personal liking or disliking of a particular food or food group.

An example of a food preference is someone liking sweet food but disliking bitter food or having a preference for spicy food over bland food.

What are the explanations for food preferences?

Some theories and explanations have been proposed to explain why animals/humans prefer certain foods. These examples are the evolutionary, behavioural and biological explanations and cultural influences.

Evolutionary explanation: genetics and food preferences

Is there a link between genetics and food preferences? Biological and evolutionary psychologists would argue so.


The evolutionary theory is a form of a biological approach: it explains people’s food preferences rely on the diets of their ancestors. The evolutionary theory argues food preferences are innate, and its purpose is to increase the likelihood of survival and reproducing offspring with these same ‘successful’ food preferences.

According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, humans evolved from apes. The diets of apes consist primarily of fruits and nuts. However, the evolution of humans through ‘successfulgenes has led humans to have a more complex diet, e.g. including carbohydrates and proteins. The more complex diet provides more nutrition and gives us more energy, thus increasing humans’ chances for survival.

Evolutionary mechanisms that influence food preferences

  • Taste receptors increase the chance of survival because humans can tell if food is sour or bitter and if the food might have gone bad. Evolutionary psychologists argue this to be an evolutionary mechanism to stop people from getting sick and improve their chance of survival.

  • Evolutionary psychologists also argue that taste aversion is an evolutionary mechanism.

    Taste aversion refers to avoiding certain food after having a negative experience. According to the theory, this mechanism is ‘hardwired’ into humans, and its purpose is to help animals/humans avoid harmful foods.

  • Evolutionary psychologists also proposed that people do not eat or find it difficult to eat new or unusual foods because of an evolutionary mechanism called neophobia. It decreases the chances of people/animals with varied diets eating something harmful.

evolution, ape to man, flaticon.comThe theory of evolution, Flaticon

The strengths of the evolutionary explanations for food preferences are as follows:

  • It can explain why pregnant women may have morning sickness (remove things in their body that may potentially harm their child) or heave when they smell certain things.

The weaknesses of the evolutionary approach for food preferences are as follows:

  • It is reductionist because it ignores the impact of cultural influences on food preferences. There are apparent differences between western and eastern diets; however, the evolutionary approach does not explain why this happens.

  • This approach is very simplistic as it assumes the purpose of all human actions and processes is to ensure survival.

Behavioural explanation for food preferences

The behavioural approach argues that our environment, experiences, parents, peers and role models influence our food preferences.

Some example theories that behavioural psychologists have proposed to explain food preferences are:

  • According to the classical conditioning theory, people may avoid the food they dislike because they negatively associate it. When individuals eat something (unconditional stimuli), they have a natural, negative response to it, such as gagging (unconditional response).

    If an individual eats something they do not like, they associate the food (unconditional stimuli) with the unconditional response (gagging). Consequently, they will avoid it in the future.

Classical conditioning, Pavlov’s dogs, flaticon.com

A dog responding to a bell, as a reference to the famous Pavlov’s dogs study, Flaticon


  • The theory of operant conditioning proposes that food preferences are learned through reinforcement. For example, if a parent positively reinforces their child (e.g., praises their child for eating healthy food), they are more likely to eat it again. Whereas negative reinforcement, removing something negative, can also influence food preferences.

    Examples of this are eating an anti-acid medicine before eating something spicy or brushing your teeth after eating chocolate.

  • According to the social learning theory, the individual may imitate their peers’ reaction to a certain food, preventing or increasing the likelihood of eating that particular food.

    An example of this is eating a spicy burger and enjoying the taste with peers, which may increase the likelihood of trying it again.

The strengths of the behavioural explanations for food preferences are as follows:

  • This approach may be better than the evolutionary theory to understand why people may suddenly stop liking a particular food.

  • There is plenty of evidence that shows the views of close ones or role models easily influence humans. Research by Kotler, Schiffman & Hanson (2012) found children are more likely to try healthy food if it is encouraged by a character they like compared to a character they do not know.

The weaknesses of the behavioural approach for food preferences are as follows:

  • Biological psychologists would disagree that the way we are nurtured influences our food preferences. Instead, they consider that humans’ genetic make-up (nature) influences our food preferences.

    For instance, certain receptors respond to a particular food, e.g., glucose has a specific receptor that responds to when someone eats something sweet, which may explain why humans eat sweet food.

    Receptors are cells that respond to external stimuli and then transmit a signal to the sensory nerve; which sends information to the brain.

  • This approach is reductionist, as this account only considers experiences; instead, the biopsychosocial model may provide a better explanation. This explanation combines the major approaches in psychology and takes a more holistic approach to understanding the psychology of humans, such as food preferences.

Food preferences in children

Research by Kotler, Schiffman & Hanson (2012) found that children are more willing to try healthy food when a character they like prompts them to do so rather than a character they do not like.

  • This finding shows the views of close ones or role models easily influence people.

  • These results support the behavioural approach to food preferences.

In addition, supporting research shows the influence of parents on children’s food preferences. Benton’s (2004) research suggests that:

  • Parental parenting style affects children’s food preferences.

  • Children are more likely to eat in an emotionally positive environment.

  • During childhood, parents and siblings are typically considered role models for children. Their role is to encourage the child to try new foods. Through repeated consumption of these foods, children’s preferences can develop.

This research highlights that the behavioural approach can be a valid explanation for understanding the development of food preferences in children.

Cultural differences in food preferences

People from different cultural backgrounds tend to eat different foods and have different attitudes towards food. Therefore, food preferences in different countries and cultures are likely to differ due to:

  • Religious beliefs – religious beliefs can influence eating habits. For example, religious Indians are less likely to eat beef.

  • Food availability – certain countries may only have certain foods available. Therefore, these individuals may prefer local ingredients that are available to them.

  • In some cultures, there are certain ways to eat food. For example, cultures where food is eaten communally may influence people’s food preferences. People may prefer to eat lots of easily shared dishes in this instance.

How do neural and hormonal mechanisms control eating behaviours?

As noted, humans have preferences towards certain foods; however, to maintain a ‘healthy’ lifestyle, these need to be regulated. Researchers have identified that neural and hormonal mechanisms work together to regulate eating behaviours in certain brain regions. These mechanisms aim to prevent people from under-eating/overeating food that may cause diet-related health issues, such as anorexia nervosa or obesity.

The role of the hypothalamus in regulating eating

Certain conditions need to be constantly maintained in the body to work optimally; this is known as homeostasis. In terms of diet, the body has mechanisms that regulate what we eat so that it has plenty of nutrients and energy to function. Important energy that needs to be regulated is glucose, which the hypothalamus regulates. There are sensory nerves in the hypothalamus that respond to changes in glucose. These send signals to the brain that encourage people to eat or stop eating.

The changes in glucose levels affect different parts of the hypothalamus. For example, the lateral hypothalamus (LH) activates when there are low glucose levels. As a result, the region sends signals to the brain that the individual is hungry. Whereas the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH) responds to high glucose levels and causes satiety (feeling of being full).

Neural and hormonal mechanisms involved in controlling eating behaviours

Research has also linked changes in the hormones leptin and ghrelin with activation of the LH and VMH. The activation of the LH has been linked to high levels of ghrelin (which increases appetite) and the VMH to high levels of leptin (suppresses appetite).

The changes in the hormones activate certain neural networks to control eating behaviours. For instance, when someone has low levels of glucose and ghrelin, the LH is activated. This signals to the brain that they are hungry, and the individual is then likely to eat. Whilst the individual is eating, their glucose levels will gradually rise, and leptin will increase. This activates the VMH, which signals to the brain they are full, and the individual will stop eating.

Food Preferences - Key takeaways

  • Food preferences are when individuals express a personal liking or dislike to a particular food or food group.
  • The evolutionary approach is that people’s food preferences stem from the diets of their ancestors. These are innate, and their purpose is to increase the likelihood of survival and reproducing offspring with these same ‘successful’ food preferences.
  • The behavioural approach argues that our environment, experiences, parents, peers and role models influence our food preferences.
  • Various cultural aspects influence humans’ food preferences, such as religion, food availability and differences in attitudes towards food.
  • As noted, humans have preferences towards certain foods; however, to maintain a ‘healthy’ lifestyle, these need to be regulated:
    • Glucose, ghrelin, and leptin.

Frequently Asked Questions about Food Preferences

Biological psychologists argue that humans’ genetic makeup (nature) is what causes food preferences.


For instance, certain receptors respond to a particular food, e.g., glucose has a specific receptor that responds to when someone eats something sweet, which may explain why humans eat sweet food.

Food preferences are an expression of a personal liking or disliking of a particular food or food group.

According to evolutionary psychologists, we have food preferences to ensure our survival. Behavioural psychologists believe we have these preferences because we have learned them. Psychologists have noted humans have developed food preferences due to cultural influences.

As humans have preferences towards certain foods, these need to be regulated so that they can try and maintain a ‘healthy’ lifestyle.  

According to biological psychologists, food preferences result from genetics and serve evolutionary purposes (they ensure survival). According to behavioural psychologists, food preferences are learned via reinforcement, forming associations or imitating role models. However, culture has also been found to play an important role.

Final Food Preferences Quiz

Question

What are food preferences?

Show answer

Answer

Food preferences are an expression of a personal liking or disliking of a particular food or food group.

Show question

Question

According to evolutionary psychologists, what is the purpose of food preferences?

Show answer

Answer

The evolutionary theory argues that food preferences are innate, and its purpose is to increase the likelihood of survival and reproducing offspring with these same ‘successful’ food preferences.

Show question

Question

According to the theory of evolution, humans evolved from apes. How have diets changed throughout evolution? 

Show answer

Answer

The diets of apes consist primarily of fruits and nuts. However, the evolution of humans through ‘successful’ genes has led humans to have a more complex diet, e.g. including carbohydrates and proteins. The more complex diet provides more nutrition and gives us more energy, thus increasing humans’ chances for survival.

Show question

Question

What is taste aversion?

Show answer

Answer

Taste aversion refers to avoiding certain food after having a negative experience.

Show question

Question

What is an advantage of the evolutionary approach to food preferences? 

Show answer

Answer

It can explain why pregnant women may have morning sickness (remove things in their body that may potentially harm their child) or heave when they smell certain things.

Show question

Question

What are the disadvantages of the evolutionary approach to food preferences? 

Show answer

Answer

  • It is reductionist because it ignores the impact of cultural influences on food preferences. There are apparent differences between western and eastern diets; however, the evolutionary approach does not explain why this happens.
  • This approach is very simplistic as it assumes the purpose of all human actions and processes is to ensure survival.

Show question

Question

How do associations cause people to dislike certain foods?

Show answer

Answer

This happens when the individual eats something (unconditional stimuli) and has a natural, negative response to it, such as gagging (unconditional response). If the individual repeatedly eats it, the individual will form an association between the food (conditional stimuli) and gagging (conditioned response). Therefore, they will try to avoid it.

Show question

Question

How does positive reinforcement affect food preferences?

Show answer

Answer

If a parent positively reinforces their child, such as praising their child for eating the food, they are more likely to eat it again.

Show question

Question

How does negative reinforcement affect food preferences? 

Show answer

Answer

Negative reinforcement deters people from eating a particular food. For example, if a parent tells their child off when they eat sweets, this may stop them from eating sweets.

Show question

Question

What are the advantages of the behavioural approach to food preferences? 


Show answer

Answer

  • This approach may be better than the evolutionary theory to understand why people may suddenly stop liking a particular food.
  • There is plenty of evidence that shows the views of close ones or role models easily influence humans. These findings provide supportive evidence for the behavioural approach to food preferences.

Show question

Question

What are the disadvantages of the behavioural approach to food preferences? 

Show answer

Answer

  • Biological psychologists would disagree that the way we are nurtured influences our food preferences. Instead, they consider that humans’ genetic makeup (nature) influences our food preferences.
  • This approach is reductionist, as this account only considers experiences; instead, the biopsychosocial model may provide a better explanation. This explanation combines the major approaches in psychology and takes a more holistic approach to understanding the psychology of humans, such as food preferences.

Show question

Question

Are food preferences genetic?

Show answer

Answer

Biological psychologists argue that humans’ genetic makeup (nature) is what causes food preferences. For instance, certain receptors respond to a particular food, e.g., glucose has a specific receptor that responds to when someone eats something sweet, which may explain why humans eat sweet food.

Show question

Question

How can culture influence food preferences? 

Show answer

Answer

  • Religious beliefs – religious beliefs can influence eating habits. For example, religious Indians are less likely to eat beef.
  • Food availability – certain countries may only have certain foods available. Therefore, these individuals may prefer local ingredients that are available to them.
  • In some cultures, there are certain ways to eat food. For example, cultures where food is eaten communally may influence people’s food preferences. People may prefer to eat lots of easily shared dishes in this instance.

Show question

Question

Which statement suggests that cultural preferences do not influence food preferences?

Show answer

Answer

Globalisation

Show question

Question

What is the purpose of the system that regulates diet?

Show answer

Answer

As humans have preferences towards certain foods, these need to be regulated to try and maintain a ‘healthy’ lifestyle.  

Show question

Question

What is homeostasis? 


Show answer

Answer

Constant, optimum body condition.

Show question

Question

What is the role of the sensory nerves in the hypothalamus in terms of regulating food preferences?

Show answer

Answer

There are sensory nerves in the hypothalamus that respond to changes in glucose. These send signals to the brain that encourage people to eat or stop eating.

Show question

Question

What are the changes in the hypothalamus activation, glucose and hormone levels when someone is hungry?

Show answer

Answer

When someone is hungry, they tend to have low levels of glucose and ghrelin, activating the LH. This process sends a signal to the brain that they are hungry.

Show question

Question

What are the changes in the hypothalamus activation, glucose and hormone levels when someone is full?

Show answer

Answer

When full, a person will have high glucose and leptin levels, which will lead to the activation of the VMH and send signals that they are full.

Show question

Question

What are leptin and ghrelin both examples of?

Show answer

Answer

Neurotransmitters

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Food Preferences quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Just Signed up?

Yes
No, I'll do it now

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.