Study explores different cultures’ attitudes on food and well-being

Social psychology assistant professor Nairan Ramirez-Esparza and graduate student Gloriana Rodríguez-Arauz, alongside University of Costa Rica psychology professor Vanessa Smith-Castro, wanted to determine if there are cultural differences in how food perception and well-being related.  (Matt Gibson/Flickr Creative Commons) 

A study led by two University of Connecticut professors founds a difference in the relation of food attitudes and well-being between Costa Ricans and Americans.

Social psychology assistant professor Nairan Ramirez-Esparza and graduate student Gloriana Rodríguez-Arauz, alongside University of Costa Rica psychology professor Vanessa Smith-Castro, wanted to determine if there are cultural differences in how food perception and well-being related, Arauz said.

Arauz said that food culture and attitude in the U.S. is very negative when compared to European countries like France, where they see their food in a more positive way.

“(The French) look forward to their meals,” Arauz said. “They think of eating as an occasion where you socialize with people.”

Arauz said that although the French eat a lot of fatty foods, their heath indicators are better than in the U.S.

Arauz said that they wanted to see if there were any differences between an individualistic culture like the U.S. and a collectivist culture. Using contacts from her time as a professor at the University of Costa Rica, Esparza and Arauz compares Americans to Costa Ricans.

The researchers focus on two specific food attitudes: weight concern and attitude towards food, Arauz said.

Arauz said that they were especially interested in food attitude because of its seemingly contradictory nature.

“There is this ambivalence about food,” Arauz said. “Oh it’s delicious, I look forward to eating, I really like eating. But then it’s like no, I’ll get fat.”

The researchers measured well-being by focusing on signs of depression and anxiety, as well as examining people’s beliefs on the connection between diet and health, Arauz said.

Costa Ricans were found to be less negative towards food and weight concerned than American, yet both had about the same level of belief in the connection between diet and health, Arauz said.

Costa Ricans can still be very concerned about their weight, Arauz said. But when Costa Ricans were more food positive, such as looking forward to their meals, they felt less depressed, said Arauz. Americans, on the other hand, did not show a similar relationship.

Arauz said the effects of the relationships within the research were not strong, however. “It is very preliminary evidence,” Arauz said.

Arauz said that the different ethics between individualistic and collectivist cultures is the reason why Costa Ricans view food more positively than Americans.

“Individualism is rooted in the protestant work ethic,” Arauz said.

Arauz described the protestant work ethic as the belief that through a lot of individual effort, a person should be responsible for his or her own well-being and success in life.

“If somehow you don’t do well in life, well that basically meant that you did not put in enough effort,” Arauz said.

Arauz said that this agentic perspective, a social cognition theory, means that people are in control of their own lives, and needed to have discipline.

Arauz said individualism has a downside to it.

For example, Arauz said that research has consistently shown in the case of obesity that obesity is a very complex problem. There are genetic components involved which cannot be taken as personal fault, but which individualism does not take into account, Arauz said.

“If you look at the phenomena of obesity, it is this notion of personal responsibility,” Arauz said.

“You should eat better, you should exercise - it’s you. It’s this notion that you are flawed because you are unable to get better.”


Dario Cabrera is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at dario.cabrera@uconn.edu.