The Diet-Psychosocial Relationship in Nutritional Psychology: Is Dietary Intake in Lower Socioeconomic Families Influenced by Environment?

As rates of obesity continue to rise, research shows that families on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are impacted the most (Isaacs et al., 2022). Food provisions available in these environments (referred to as food provisioning environments, or FPEs) tend to differ from those found in higher socioeconomic environments and include differences in convenience, labeling, food promotion, price, and nutritional quality. For instance, fast food is more readily available in lower socioeconomic environments, and marketing is geared toward cheaper, high-sugar, and high-fat foods. These foods are also more inclined to have misleading labels that may lead individuals without sufficient nutrition education to believe they are making a healthy choice (Grace, 2016).


Food Provisioning Environments (FPEs) include the foods available to people in their surroundings as they go about their everyday lives.


How do these various aspects of a family’s food provisioning environments steer their particular food choices and dietary intake? Could a better understanding of the effects of FPEs on lower socioeconomic families influence the development of public health policies and interventions that remedy the disparity between socioeconomic environments? 

Using ethnographic research methods involving semi-structured interviews, ‘shop-along’ interviews, photo-elicitation, and informal FPE observations, Isaacs and colleagues (2019) explored how 60 low-income families across three locations in England interacted with their food provisioning environments.  The photo-elicitation process involved participants taking pictures of things that made buying the foods they wanted for their families more or less difficult. The subjects of these photos were then discussed in a follow-up interview. Moreover, using all of the data, these researchers looked at how these families used their FPEs to fulfill their needs, some of which were unrelated to nutrition.

While all of the families within this study stressed the importance of their children’s general well-being, not all strongly preferred eating a nutritious diet, particularly if it did not fit within their budget. The processed food choices they allow their children to eat could be a sign of instant gratification, a trait that those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum have been found to indulge in more (Liu et al., 2012). 

This makes sense, as it is more difficult to care about the long-term effects of diet when you are struggling to put food on the table in the here and now. The irony is that the highly processed treats and fast food these families engage in may also impair their hippocampus and its functioning (López-Taboada et al., 2021). The hippocampus is a brain structure critical in delaying gratification (Abela et al., 2015). When discussing the influence that FPEs have on individuals and families, it is paramount to consider all the factors involved.  


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Isaac and colleagues (2019) found that while families on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum were surrounded by food provisioning environments that made them more likely to buy unhealthy products, these same environments also facilitated the family’s use of food purchases to support their children’s well-being through social engagement and activities. 

While using processed food as a means of social engagement may not fall strictly into one socioeconomic bracket, it is more relevant for those with less income (Burningham & Venn, 2021). For example, while some of these families were not able to take a yearly vacation, they were capable of buying their children ice cream, which can be seen as a treat and activity in itself. Of course, using processed food to fulfill needs related to emotional and social well-being is a problem in itself, as allowing these early eating habits have been shown to shape lifelong behaviors (Johannsen et al., 2006).


Food Provisioning Environments meet needs other than nutrition, including emotional and social well-being.


This study shows us that when considering changes to food provisioning policies and interventions to address obesity, it is important that we consider the realities of those who live on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Factors other than explicit nutritional needs, like using certain food groups to facilitate activities and social interaction, need to be examined and considered from a holistic viewpoint.


Changes to Food Provisioning Environments need to be considered from a holistic viewpoint.


Securing better FPEs for families on the lower socioeconomic spectrum is complex. For example, if policymakers removed all of the fast food restaurants from these environments and replaced them with healthier, nutrient-dense options, they would be taking away areas where these families socialize and have family time. This “solution” could also place financial hardship on these families, as fresh fruits and vegetables are usually more expensive and do not last as long. Not to mention the difficulty in getting children to change their dietary habits, coupled with the pressure children can place on their already stressed parents to buy highly processed foods that are perceived as tastier. Due to these complexities, Isaacs and colleagues (2019) suggest that any future changes to these environments be tailored to include this population’s emotional and social well-being needs and that these changes be tied into existing practices, including seeking out deals and meeting financial needs. They also suggest that affordable activities that support emotional and social well-being and are not centered around food be implemented. Finally, the authors point to the need for intense engagement with these communities regarding changing food policies and interventions, with a closer look into how these policies and interventions are made, including managing conflicts of interest. 



Abela, A. R., Duan, Y., & Chudasama, Y. (2015). Hippocampal interplay with the nucleus accumbens is critical for decisions about time. The European journal of neuroscience, 42(5), 2224–2233.

Grace, D. 2016. Influencing food environments for healthy diets through food safety. IN: FAO, Influencing food environments for healthy diets. Rome, Italy: FAO: 43–75.

Isaacs, A., Halligan, J., Neve, K., & Hawkes, C. (2022). From healthy food environments to healthy wellbeing environments: Policy insights from a focused ethnography with low-income parents’ in England. Health & place, 77, 102862. Advance online publication.

Johannsen, D. L., Johannsen, N. M., & Specker, B. L. (2006). Influence of parents’ eating behaviors and child feeding practices on children’s weight status. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 14(3), 431–439.

Kate Burningham & Susan Venn (2022) “Two quid, chicken and chips, done”: understanding what makes for young people’s sense of living well in the city through the lens of fast food consumption, Local Environment, 27:1, 80-96, DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2021.2001797

Liu, L., Feng, T., Suo, T., Lee, K., & Li, H. (2012). Adapting to the destitute situations: poverty cues lead to short-term choice. PloS one, 7(4), e33950.

López-Taboada, I., González-Pardo, H., & Conejo, N. M. (2020). Western Diet: Implications for Brain Function and Behavior. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 564413.

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