What Influences Our Food Choices?

by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.

Why do I eat? What makes me choose healthy or unhealthy foods? Who (or what) controls what I eat?

Your brain is influenced by a multitude of different things when making decisions about food.

In this 52-page report, we’ll navigate these influences: physiological or environmental, conscious or unconscious, hormonal or neural, visual or olfactory. Ready to learn?

Grab “What influences our food choices?” below:


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Conveniently download this 52-page science report. Contains links to extra reading materials and scientific references.

Topics covered in this report:

  1. Why do I eat?
  2. Is it your conscious brain?
  3. Who (or what) is in control?
  4. Figure 1: Food intake influences
  5. You’re not asleep…
  6. Sleep deprivation and appetite
  7. Your brain’s reward centres
  8. Getting enough sleep
  9. A sweat a day keeps hunger away
  10. Your stress levels and food choices
  11. More stress, more calories?
  12. How stress and sleep are interlinked
  13. Cortisol and calorie-rich foods
  14. A hungry brain is a poor judge
  15. Feeling hungry, or feeling satisfied?
  16. Gender differences and evolution
  17. But don’t men need more calories?
  18. I spy with my little eye
  19. Advertisers may know you better
  20. Healthy vs. unhealthy food marketing
  21. We can use this to our advantage…
  22. Your amygdala on food packaging
  23. I’ll have what she’s having…
  24. …and the primates will have it too
  25. Keep your nose out of it!
  26. That chocolaty smell…
  27. Specific smells for specific purchases
  28. Aroma stimulates taste anticipation
  29. What do you value more?
  30. 58 specific values, 10 value types
  31. Figure 2: Value mapping
  32. Values and food choices?
  33. Values and food choices: examples
  34. Taking the first steps
  35. Your key takeaways
  36. Learn more
  37. References and resources


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And I'd love to hear from you in the comments below:

  1. What's your number one discovery from this report?
  2. What does it mean to you and those you help?
  3. Are there any action steps you would take, or things you would change as a result of this report?

Share your own insights with me and your fellow readers!

Alex Ruani leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where she and her team make sense of complex scientific literature and translate it into easy-to-understand practical concepts for students. She is a Harvard-trained scientific researcher who specialises in cravings and appetite neurobiology, nutrition biochemistry, and nutrigenomics. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition science, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free Science Catch-ups every other Thursday.
Connect with Alex via email.

Every other Thursday we share our research and actionable advice to help you and those you care about. If you enjoyed this, join our FREE updates.


  • Debbie Harper

    Reply Reply March 26, 2015

    To remind myself in a brief note form on my fridge:

    1. Get a good night’s sleep every night.
    2. Learn to say no sometimes.
    3. Exercise to the point of breaking a sweat every day.
    4. Practise mindfulness in everything I do. Be present!
    5. Remember, a 10-second hug improves attitude and quality of food choices.

    • Alex

      Reply Reply March 26, 2015

      Debbie – thanks for sharing, love your checklist and fridge note idea. Moving from knowledge to action is what matters, so well done!

    • Monika

      Reply Reply March 29, 2015

      Great idea, Debbie! That way there is no hiding away from it.

    • Philip Watling

      Reply Reply April 4, 2015

      I’ll give anyone a ten-second hug, Debbie or preferably longer! I cannot say that it determines what or how I’ll eat though.

  • Hani

    Reply Reply March 26, 2015

    it is one of the best and rich knowledge reports i have ever read. Many clients ,nutritionists and personal trainers need these applied info to determine and reach their goal .

    Limiting factors effect ,hormonal secretions, behavioural out comes are main points to be triggereD.

    I would like to ask you if you can support us with a nutritional fitness assessment case study and how we determine a nutrition plan that is depending on risk factors that you mentioned above.
    Thanks for your support

    • Alex

      Reply Reply March 26, 2015

      Hani – I love to hear that, and I agree with you wholeheartedly! Any nutrition or fitness plan should consider these action steps too. We dive into each one of them in great depth in our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Practitioner course. Not sure if you’re enrolled, but even by just looking at the curriculum you can learn loads and get new ideas: https://thehealthsciencesacademy.org/cpd-accredited-cyq-endorsed-clinical-weight-loss-certification

      • Lillian Parker

        Reply Reply March 26, 2015

        Wow Alex and team I thoroughly enjoyed reading this report and learnt so much!! I am on Module 1 of the advanced weight loss training and experienced so many light bulb moments already!! Cant wait to dive into my next module, studying has never been so much fun for me. Thank You !!!

  • Elizabeth

    Reply Reply March 26, 2015

    I write a one page Get Active Bulletin for my company and was wondering how I could collect snippets of information from your articles and what would I have to site as references? Any help or suggestions? These are so well written, the facts are easily understood by the non-professional and great for folks just wanting information to do more in depth research later.

    • Hi Elizabeth, thanks for checking! There are two ways to share “snippets” of our reports without infringing the copyright. One is through using “speech quotes” with attribution to Alex Ruani at The Health Sciences Academy plus a link to this page. The second one is via a screen grab, capturing the copyright line on the margin of the slide, plus a link to this page. The most important bit is to link to this page and attribute the source. I hope this helps, your Get Active Bulletin sounds fun!

  • mel

    Reply Reply March 26, 2015

    this was really interesting!! thank you!

  • Sam Metson

    Reply Reply March 26, 2015

    Another very interesting and thought provoking piece.

    In 2012, I had an Adrenal Stress Profile saliva test (BH205) which revealed a total daily cortisol score of just 15.6 nM/L – less than the waking level should be, let alone with the other Noon, mid-afternoon and night scores added in. I also had a Cortisol : DHEA-S Ratio of just 2.3, instead of 5-6. A good night’s sleep is still elusive because waking around 3am is a regular feature I don’t seem to be able to overcome and, once awake, my mind starts on the worrying issues in a very active way.

    Blood sugar level dropping at night causes cortisol to flow and this drives out the sleep hormone, melatonin, and so you wake up. As cortisol is apart of the fight or flight response, stress / worrying keeps cortisol going . Inflammation of the gut (leaky gut) or other issues such as fibromyalgia, arthritis or simple sports injury all call for cortisol, since it is an anti-inflammatory compound. I had a hip replacement in April, which was definitely a source of inflammation before the op. Bright lights at night from the street lighting, your home, iPad, iPhone or laptop are all other stimulants of cortisol, messing up sleep at night and stimulating appetite for sugar rich foods. It is also common to seek out a sugar-rich snack when stress levels rise as it is literally comfort eating.

    It’s a vicious circle if you eat badly, you raise blood sugar levels and that upsets insulin production so that too much insulin is released dropping blood sugar levels (insulin resistance), that leads to more production of cortisol to raise blood sugar again by eating more carbs etc. I have got better control of my blood sugar levels (and cravings), but I still don’t sleep well.

    Sleep, or lack of it, lands up stimulating appetite. However, I believe another factor comes into play, Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is only produced in quantity between 9pm and midnight – this is due to our circadian rhythm, which believe it or not is still attempting to operate in our modern world. As I understand it is HGH that is responsible for controlling cell detoxification, repair and renewal. You can see how one issue cascades into another and why it is so important to seek out fundamental causes of body imbalances and ill health and not simply treat symptoms.

    I did not know the amygdala had a role in appetite and eating. i understood from Srini Pillay’s wonderful book “Life Unlocked” that the amygdala was a very primitive, yet super fast acting part of the brain that by-passed the cortex (logical brain). He described it as an emotional centre, but the emotion it responded to first and foremost is fear. Fearful thinking can be like a well worn track, rutted and difficult to get out of, and it prevents the more logical side of the brain from helping you make more rounded decisions. Its original function was to very rapidly identify danger, so you could respond appropriately. When you initially stare into the face of a stranger who may have startled you, your eye contact with him or her is being interpreted by the amygdala in the main.

    I apologise if this appears somewhat off subject, but it is also connected in a roundabout manner.

  • Kathy

    Reply Reply March 26, 2015

    Really appreciated your work and research so helpful as it reinforces the work I’ve done to help people with bulimia and disordered eating.

    I wanted to ask if you would do a paper on FOODS THAT CAUSE INFLAMMATION, and FOODS THAT REDUCE INFLAMMATION

    I’m finding inflammation is a real issue with OCD and depression
    Thanks Kathy

  • James B

    Reply Reply March 28, 2015

    Impressive report, I could not stop reading it!

    For the first time I realise that is not just hunger. There is a lot more going on!!!

    My number one discovery is how stress and sleep can influence food choices.

    So my action step is LESS stress and MORE sleep.

    Thanks a lot!!!!!

  • Monika

    Reply Reply March 29, 2015

    I never really looked at my food choices from so many ways. I’m aware of influences coming from marketing and some strategies like nice smell of freshly baked bread or brewed coffee. I admit at times they are difficult to resist. I’m trying to practice mindfulness and realised that at times my food choices are linked to emotional engagement with that particular type of food. Although I’m aware of that fact it can still be challenge to break away from it. I also tend to make rather poor food choices when I’m tired and/or stressed. Getting enough sleep has been a long battle of mine I reach out for foods with quick energy release but short lasting effect and hardly any nutrients. Something to keep focusing on. However after exercise I noticed I tend to make more healthy choices. It is perhaps to do with not wanting to spoil the good work and good feeling from keeping fit and active and wanting to feed my body with good nutrients.
    Thank you for another great report, very surprising & interesting again! I hope that I know the tricks around me now so I can still make better food choices for my body and health. Thank you for another great topic for family discussions.

  • Marc

    Reply Reply March 30, 2015

    Great report Alex, a lot of what it said I could relate to how I have operated in the past and how my friends and family respond to sleep deprivation and stressful situations. Great to now know there are some simple steps we can all take to try and eliminate these problems, this will also be a good knowledge source when I am helping and advising some of my future clients. Once again thank you Alex.

  • kristene

    Reply Reply March 31, 2015

    Interesting read. I had no idea how much a lack of sleep can affect how we eat and our food choices. Its good to know that by changing our habits and getting more rest, doing more exercise, we can have a positive impact on our health.

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