Differing ideas about healthy diets

In the last period of this academic year I gave the course Eating, Customs and Health, mandatory for first-year students Health and Society. As part of this course students were to execute a small research, in order to practice their interviewing skills. I asked the students to study the importance of a particular part of a diet (such as meat, dessert, or breakfast) for two groups of people (such as students following different study programs, or students with different nationalities) and to study the health effects of that part of the diet in the eyes of the respondents. They were also asked to compare the two groups.

The students worked in groups of five or six, and were to interview one respondent each (in groups of two; an interviewer and a secretary), so that their findings are based on just a few respondents. We should therefore be very careful with interpreting the results. Nevertheless, there were some interesting findings that I would like to share:

  • One of the groups compared students of Nutrition and Health with students of Agro-technology, and the importance they give to eating meat with their dinner. Because of the focus on nutrition and its health effects in their study programme, the expectation was that students of Nutrition and Health would eat less meat compared to students of Agro-technology, and that they would have more ideas about the health effects of eating meat. However, the students did not find any clear differences between the two groups of respondents.
  • Another group compared students that are involved in weight training, and students that are not, looking at the importance these students give to meat. Not surprisingly, they found that the respondents involved in weight training ate more meat than the respondents not involved in such training. However, they also found that the weight trainers were more aware of how much meat they eat, and – perhaps unexpectedly – they found that the respondents that weight train do believe that it is possible to have a well-balanced diet containing no meat at all, whereas the non-training respondents found meat to be an important component of the meal.
  • One group looked at the importance of breakfast, comparing athletes to people with a general exercise pattern. The group concluded that all of their respondents value breakfast, argueing that it has a positive effect on health. The difference, however, is that the athlete respondents consider breakfast in a more functional way; to them the breakfast is needed to prepare their body for a day of training. For respondents with a general exercise pattern, it is (also) important that breakfast tastes good, and they would more easily let their schedule interfere with their desire to eat breakfast.
  • A fourth group compared Chinese and Dutch students, looking at the importance of a hot lunch. They found that a hot lunch was very important for the Chinese respondents – in fact, they considered lunch as more important than dinner. The group tried to understand how the hot lunch relates to the concepts convenience and accessibility, and concluded that a hot lunch was not seen as inconvenient by the Chinese respondents, whereas the Dutch respondents did consider it inconvenient. All respondents saw the hot lunch as physically accessible, but Dutch respondents found it financially inaccessible, while the Chinese respondents did not. The students concluded that these differences reflect the (cultural) importance of the hot lunch.

Again, these results are based on a few respondents only, but it was nice to see how in some cases the two groups of respondents did show interesting differences. It showed that different groups of people have different ideas and convictions about what is a balanced meal and a healthy diet, reflecting their cultural background, their upbringing or their values.