Responding to critics who argue that poor people do not choose to eat healthy food because they’re ignorant or prefer unhealthy food, dietitian Ellyn Satter wrote a hierarchy of food needs. Based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it illustrates Satter’s ideas as to the elements of food that matter first, second, and so on… starting at the bottom.
The graphic suggests that getting enough food to eat is the most important thing to people. Having food be acceptable (e.g., not rotten, something you are not allergic to) comes second. Once those two things are in place, people hope for reliable access to food and only then do they begin to worry about taste. If people have enough, acceptable, reliable, good-tasting food, then they seek out novel food experiences and begin to make choices as to what to eat for instrumental purposes (e.g., number of calories, nutritional balance).
As Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist writes, sometimes when a person chooses to eat nutritionally deficient or fattening foods, it is not because they are “stupid, ignorant, lazy, or just a bad, bad person who loves bad, bad food.” Sometimes, it’s “because other needs come first.”
Originally posted in 2010; hat tip to Racialicious; cross-posted at Jezebel.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Jeff Kaufman — August 10, 2010
I think the link for "hierarchy of food needs" should maybe be http://www.ellynsatter.com/resources/Foodneeds.pdf
Undefined — August 10, 2010
It's not clear that the hierarchy of food needs can help to disprove that "poor people do not eat healthy food". If anything, it seems to confirm this claim, since the graphic suggests that poorer persons are more likely to eat food that is unhealthy, because satisfying the most basic need for 'enough food [of any quality]' presumably has greater urgency for people of low economic means.
kb — August 10, 2010
I'm confused about the intention behind the statement, "poor people do not eat healthy food." Are these critics saying that even if healthy food was available, poor people would not eat it, or are they merely stating the fact that the food commonly accessible to poor people is often of low nutritional quality?
The purpose of this post is not clear to me.
DoogieHowser — August 10, 2010
So in the "developed countries" we have all kinds of unhealthy eating (eating disorders, chronic obesity, diabetes epidemic, hypertension, etc). The rest of the world still struggles with the problem of "food security" (read: not having significant %s of their populaces die from starvation). Bottom line: as much progress as we think we've made in the past century or two, the world still struggles with one of its most fundamental issues: being able to feed everyone, healthily. Thanks for covering that topic on this blog.
andie — August 10, 2010
The truth of the matter is that regardless of whether obesity is a symptom of this, the truth of the matter is that in western countries, the poor are undernourished, and when you take into account how much cheap and plentiful processed, prepackaged, nutrient-devoid food is compared to fresh produce and fresh meat, then this pyramid makes a lot of sense.
Ask any college student who has lived off Ramen noodles for a month.
abitha — August 10, 2010
I don't claim to be any particular expert in the realm of 'food choices', but I wonder if we are conflating two separate issues here. Namely, the food choices of poor people in poor countries, and the food choices of poor people in rich countries.
There are still many people in poor countries who struggle to get enough food, acceptable food, and reliable access to food. These things are generally much less of a problem in most rich countries, where food is usually fairly plentiful - although I am not denying that they may still be a problem for some (for reference, I live in the UK where we have the welfare state, don't know so much about other countries). Meanwhile, most of the "poor people make unhealthy food choices" discourse relates to poor people in rich countries, not those in poor countries. A poor person in the USA who eats a diet of McDonalds isn't likely to be doing so because he/she doesn't have reliable access to a decent quantity of acceptable food elsewhere. There may be multiple reasons why he/she eats such a diet (and I agree that many of those reasons will be systemic rather than individual) - e.g. the taste of that food compared to what else is available for the same price, the convenience of fast food when one is worn out from earning minimum wage all day and doesn't want to cook, lack of suitable cooking and storage facilities for fresh food, or lack of local shops that sell it and are open at convenient hours - and yes, perhaps a lack of education about how to eat healthily and how to prepare a healthy meal. But i think this diagram might oversimplify things just a little bit.
Sharon Rose — August 10, 2010
Why aren't we criticizing the critics for sloppy logic?
They "argue that poor people do not eat healthy food choose to eat healthy food because they’re ignorant or prefer unhealthy food...."
OK, so 'poor people' don't eat healthy food? Well, how provable is that? There are rich people who make poor food choices and poor people who do. Where is the proof that income level causes poor choices? Let 'em haul those numbers out conclusively before working on a counter model.
Then there's the false dichotomy of ignorance vs. preference to explain a phenomenon that hasn't been demonstrated. Even if there was a causal connection between income and food choices - which is there territory of food security study and doesn't undermine its validity -
the range of possibilities within that field are vast and complex. Eating is one of our most primal areas of behaviour and requires sensitive study.
If by critics we mean public policy makers, researchers, politicians, public relations consultants and think tankers who don't advocate giving people enough money to live on, nor any other program of income security, then shouldn't we already be suspicious?
alawyer — August 10, 2010
If I read you correctly, what you're saying is that poor people tend to eat unhealthy food because they can't afford to get enough calories' worth of acceptably tasting healthy food. This is a claim that requires a fairly complex economic analysis of the price of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains versus the prices of packaged foods in the context of a poor person's food budget. Perhaps lots of research has been done on this but a pyramid chart isn't it.
Cost considerations can't explain why poor people tend to eat too many calories, as evidenced by their higher obesity rates.
renee — August 10, 2010
I guess I get Satter's basic point, but I don't really buy the hierarchy, as it gives greater value to considerations that are important in her cultural context (like "novel food") but may not be in others'cultures. What people eat is very much a reflection of class and culture as much as their need for calories, and not everyone values novelty or nutritional balance. In fact, some people will go pretty far out of their way never to eat a novel food.
I once saw a TV documentary on food and social class that showed a food bank in Vermont that got donations of day-old artisanal bread from a local bakery. Here were these lovely loaves, accessible and available to hungry people--and they wouldn't touch them.
shorelines — August 10, 2010
I think something that is often lost in discussions about poverty and food choice is the fact that, at least temporarily, eating sugary, fatty, salty, calorie dense foods makes you feel good. I mean, there is a reason it's called "comfort food". Evolution programmed humans to seek these foods out when scarcity prevented over-indulgence. We still feel "rewarded" when we consume them, despite the fact they are much too abundant now.
Living in poverty can be miserably, chronically stressful. Is it any wonder that poor people seek pleasure/comfort anywhere they can get? Food seems like the obvious place to seek pleasure since you have eat anyway - you get more bang for your buck - killing two birds with one stone.
~SerendipityCat~ » Behovspyramiden anvendt på mat — August 11, 2010
[...] Sociological Images er en interessant side jeg besøker ofte, og som du burde ta en titt på. I dag fant jeg en post som visualiserte noe jeg har tenkt på lenge. (Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs) [...]
Anonymous — August 11, 2010
Really, those who have trouble understanding why poor people eat unhealthy foods should try the following experiments:
1. Spend only $20 per week, per person in your household, on food for the next month.
2. Go without eating all day, and make a pact with yourself that you will flip a coin to decide whether you eat tomorrow. Then cook up a big pot of instant mashed potatoes and see how much you eat.
Lizzzzzzzzz — August 12, 2010
Serving healthy food is a huge issue for many afterschool/camp/daycare programs. Junk food (at the place I am tutoring at right now, we serve potato chips and "granola" bars everyday) is cheaper than carrot sticks, there's no need to refrigerate it, the kids are more likely to eat it, and you don't have to worry about preparing and maybe wasting something healthy because a lot of kids are absent that day or don't like it.
We're supposed to be providing the kids with a good place to be where they are learning and we are completely ignoring their physical health. We don't have a refrigerator or a place to sanitize dishes. It is so frustrating.
more randomness: food, needs, food needs, dairy/rape, dennis kucinich & dogs » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info — August 15, 2010
[...] As Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist writes, sometimes when a person chooses to eat nutritionally deficient or fattening foods, it is not because they are “stupid, ignorant, lazy, or just a bad, bad person who loves bad, bad food.” Sometimes, it’s “because other needs come first.” (Source: Sociological Images) [...]
Fresh Watermelon: A reminder of the hierarchy of food needs « I AM in shape. ROUND is a shape. — August 15, 2010
[...] made me think of Sociological Image’s post on the Hierarchy of Food Needs. To quote from the post regarding the many ways in which the [...]
On Money « Principessa Grassa — September 3, 2010
[...] to make fancy food–more on that later, maybe, but my sociology degree wants you to go check this out in the meantime); to have the time to play around with it because I’m not, say, working two [...]
Why The Food Stamp Soft Drink Ban Is BS | A Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss — October 11, 2010
[...] about, for starters, paying some respect to the hierarchy of food needs and helping these people address these concerns first? Then, how about a little education? Teach [...]
Hierarchy of Food Needs: How Do You Get GOOD Food When There’s No Food? | A Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss — October 19, 2010
[...] Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs – The Society Pages [...]
Waste-Not Wednesday: Our Accidental Food Stamp Challenge « O, Pioneers! — October 20, 2010
[...] that eating healthy really is harder for poor people, and not because they’re stupid. Satter’s hierarchy of food needs illustrates why even if eating nutritiously (and interestingly!) is possible on a food stamp [...]
Collapsing the “hierarchy of food needs”? | outspoken introvert — March 11, 2011
[...] the article brought to mind a graphic that I saw a while back on a website called Sociological Images. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy, basic food needs related to survival must be met [...]
Food bank ... a fresh food revelation! | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page — July 11, 2011
Caroline — December 1, 2011
Just a belated question: wouldn't your e.g's "number of calories" and "nutritional balance" also translate to "enough food", depending on your basic definition of food?
JimmyJazz — December 14, 2011
How about soul food? Where does that fit?
Free friends to find and talk in here » Hierarchy of Food Needs: How Do You Get GOOD Food When There’s No Food? — October 9, 2012
[...] Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs – The Society Pages [...]
Founding Farmers — May 22, 2013
[...] whole idea of sustainable and local eating is an interesting one with a lot of socio-economic implications, but it can be hard to deny both how delicious and how difficult (resource-wise, counting money to [...]
It Happened This Week: Diet Show Fatigue, Raw Food Diets & Food Needs - Green Mountain at Fox Run — November 10, 2015
[…] Images explained Satter's Heirarchy of Food Needs, which provides a good explanation of why we can't always choose the "healthiest" […]
lala — May 28, 2017
Isn't it simply that healthy food takes time and work that poor people don't have? I work in software development, which is one of the most over-privileged industries in the world. When it's crunch time and everyone is stressed and overworked and sleep-deprived, we're all living on pizza and soda and candy for a week or two. Then everyone cuts back on work for a few weeks to rest and get their lives back on track.
No one would ever judge this, because of course you can't be expected to cook and eat healthy meals when you're stressed and overworked and sleep-deprived. People just need to understand that for the average poor person, they are in a constant state of stressed and overworked and sleep-deprived, so expecting them to take the time and effort to learn about, purchase, prepare, and eat healthy meals is unreasonable.
NotMotherTheresa — May 28, 2017
Sometimes I wonder whether the critics who talk about the poor's unhealthy food choices have EVER dealt with a lack of money.
I grew up upper middle class. I'm still solidly middle class. I've been fortunate enough to never truly do without in any meaningful way. And yet, even I have enough experience with things like being a broke college student to understand that when it comes to food, "cheap, easy, tasty, and healthy" is generally a "pick any two" situation. If you're lucky, you can sometimes get three out of four, but there are very, VERY few foods that are all four! Yes, it is technically possible to eat a healthy, well balanced diet for very little money, but the reality is, doing so requires that you spend a lot of time preparing meals that still won't taste nearly as good as a $2 dinner from Taco Bell would.
Kielein — February 20, 2019
Now one can get all food itmes on Dunkins.You can also get some discounts on Tell Dunkins. Take the survey on www.telldunkin.com
Robert — October 31, 2019
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