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I have chosen unhealthy diet as the lifestyle behavior that affects my health directly. An unhealthy diet is defined as the consumption of “high levels of high-energy foods, such as processed foods that are high in fats and sugars” and salt. (WHO, 2018). Unhealthy diets are positively associated with cardiovascular diseases, obesity, high blood pressure, stomach and colorectal cancer. (WHO, 2018) In this essay, I will be using the factors from the socio-ecological framework by Dahlgren-Whitehead to gain insight and analyse how the factors have attributed to my unhealthy diet. Age and SexBiological characteristics such as gender and age can influence diets. A study conducted revealed that women have greater cravings for sweet foods such as chocolates and desserts. (Hallam et al., 2016)
Biologically, women experience changes in hormones during the menstrual cycle every month. A study revealed that 74.3% of women reported cravings for food that are high in sugar and/or salt content, seven days before their mensuration. (Dye et al., 1995) Women are also more likely to react to high calorie content food during their various menstrual phases. (Hallam et al., 2016) Age is also an important factor contributing to unhealthy diets. Young adults are able to eat a wider range of food such as fast food, snacks and sweet beverages because they have better immune systems as compared to children and the elderly.
Being a female and a young adult, I have experienced cravings for sweet and salty food prior to mensuration and gave in to them very often. Additionally, as compared to when I was younger, I find myself consuming greater amounts of sugar/salt but less fruits and vegetables because I am less susceptible to illnesses. However, biological characteristics and genetic dispositions are inadequate to fully understand and explain it and they have been proven to have limited influence in shaping behaviours, choices and preferences.
Although age and sex can affect my unhealthy diet, social factors beyond biology are paramount. Individual Lifestyle Factors The first layer of the SE model illustrates how individual’s choices and way of living can either promote or damage health (Soderback & Uden, 2009). The type of food an individual choose to consume is largely influenced and determined by preferences and motivation in wanting to eat healthily. (Brug, 2008) Personally, the two main reasons for my unhealthy diet is due to my preference for flavourful food and lack of motivation to eat healthily.
Firstly, I have a preference for savoury food, foods that are heavy in flavours, such as curry which are usually loaded with salt, sugar and fats. I would be more inclined to choose them over fruits and vegetables which generally taste blander to me in comparison. If I were to eat vegetables, I would only eat them if they were drenched in gravy. Secondly, I am unmotivated to eat food that are high in fibre and vitamins because I do not have any apparent, major health issues as of now.
Although I am aware of thr adverse health effects of an unhealthy diet in the long run, I am not actively doing anything to change it because my daily bodily functions are normal and I do not feel any discomfort. Therefore, the combination of preference and lack of motivation to change my diet manifests in my unhealthy eating habits and choices. Both factors lead to a passive attitude towards a healthy diet and I would choose to give in to my cravings and preferences.
Social and Community Networks The second layer of the SE models states that the support or lack of thereof, from social and community networks can positively or negatively affect individuals’ health. Eating behaviour and food choices are heavily influenced by social contexts and food choices tend to model those who we are in close social connections with. I live on campus and eat out every day. I rarely eat homecooked meals and I prefer not to because it tastes bland. Moreover, my family loves snacks and ice cream so there is always at an abundance of them. My parents would buy my favourite items and encourage me to eat them when I am home.
Thus, my family network provides me with the support to eat unhealthily. My social network consists of people who also have unhealthy diets. Most of my friends and I have similar food preference. We consume fast food and snacks almost everyday and it has become a routine for us. As such, since my friends share similar taste and preference with me, it provides me the support and opportunity that further encourages and promote an unhealthy diet. Certain eating norms are produced and reproduced in social groups and we tend to eat more in groups. (Higgs & Thomas, 2016) If member of a group deviates from the norms it can warrant informal sanctions such as disapproval and exclusion from the group, which deters the individual from deviating. (Thomas & Bishop, 1984) For me, there is no network to support healthy eating especially when I live on campus where peer pressure is prevalent.
There is a strong culture of supper because of co-curricular activities which ends very late, or eating supper as a form of socialising. Despite the awareness that late night eating is unhealthy and can increase the risk of obesity and chronic diseases (Kinsey & Ormsbee, 2015), and the autonomy to decide whether to eat, I often find it hard to reject supper requests. For me, supper holds a symbolic significance representing group inclusion which is even more salient given the fact that we live together. Thus, I eat supper even if I am not hungry because of the fear of exclusion. Thus, such social stressors also contribute to my unhealthy diet.
My usual food choices are fried rice, roti prata, nasi lemak from the supper stretch near NUS or instant and processed food from 7-1, which brings me to the third layer of the SE model where my physical, living conditions affect my food choices. Physical Environment Unhealthy food choices are readily available and accessible on campus. Studies have shown that students who live away from parents displayed changes in diets and have greater intake of instant, processed food. Which is relevant to me. I buy food from 7-11 often because it is just a 3 minute walk away from my hall, which makes it a convenient supper place. My options there are instant and processed food, which contains preservatives and are high in salt content which can increase the risks of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.
Recently, NUS has also increased the number of food and drinks vending machines notably in Central Library and Utown. As I study there very often, I have easy access to them and consume them on a regular basis. Perhaps the vending machines in NUS can offer healthier options for people like me who study till late. As aforementioned, I like flavourful food and I love to eat Mala (numb and spicy food). Coupled with a rising mala trend, more canteens in NUS are starting to sell it which makes it accessible for me to eat it. Mala is unhealthy as it is oily, salty and most of the ingredients are processed food.
Thus, my living and studying environment gives me ready, easy access to all sorts of unhealthy food which possibly shaped my preference for unhealthy food and contributed to my bad diet. Societal FactorsSingapore is a competitive, fast paced society which places huge emphasis on education. Singapore’s education system has often been analogised to a “rat race”, where academic achievements are highly prioritised. This has bred high levels of stress among students and stress becomes an integral part of students’ lives.Stress levels correlates with “higher energy intake, increased saturated fat and sugar intake, and poor diet quality” (Richardson et al., 2015)
A study in the UK among university students also revealed that under eating of fruits and vegetables were associated with high stress levels. (Ansari, Berg-Beckhoff, 2015) Personally, I can relate well to the stress felt as an undergraduate due to reasons such as attaining low CAP which can affect my future and fear of unemployment. Additionally, females tend to report higher stress levels.
Having to cope with school work, the pressure to perform academically and managing hall activities to ensure I can secure enough points, have caused me a great deal of stress. It gets more stressful during examination periods and worst when I am on my period where I will indulge in unhealthy food as a form of stress relief. Thus, the high stress levels experienced in school due to external social forces such as the competitive nature of the Singaporean society contributes to my unhealthy diet. It also illustrates how the interplay of my biological characteristics and societal factors can directly impact my health which encourages and promotes an unhealthy diet.
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