Logo of the project “Why people eat in a traditional or modern way: A cross-country study“ which is carried out in ten countries. Source: PresentationLoad

Eating behaviour then and now

A study by the Department of Psychology at the University of Konstanz investigates the differences between traditional and modern eating behavior

What characterizes traditional and modern eating behaviour? This question is examined in an international study at the Department of Psychology at the University of Konstanz. Headed by health psychologist Dr Gudrun Sproesser and supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG), a literature review was combined with discussions of researchers from ten countries to compile facets of traditional and modern eating. The bottom line is: It is a multidimensional concept. It is not only about the ingredients, but also about the “how”. Traditional and modern eating also differs in the way that people eat. The results have been published in the current issue of the open access journal BMC Public Health. 

All over the world, eating habits have changed. Some of these changes have been described as a nutrition transition, which refers to a shift from diets high in cereals, fruits and vegetables towards a diet containing more animal-source foods as well as fats, oils, and sugar. According to the study, traditional and modern eating is also characterized by the way that food is processed and prepared: Is the food ultra-processed or is food prepared as grandma would have done it?  

To distinguish between traditional and modern eating, it is not sufficient to concentrate on the “What”: “We soon realized that traditional and modern eating behaviour involves much more than simply the facet of ingredients and food groups. It is very important how people eat”, says Gudrun Sproesser, academic staff member at the Department of Psychology.  

In the how-category, modern snacking contrasts with traditional main meals just as traditional eating at home contrasts with today’s popular eating in a restaurant. The appreciation of food also falls into this category: People save less and throw more away. Traditionally it was more important to get full; nowadays counting calories is the way to go. Another dimension is the social aspect: Eating together, especially with the family, is part of traditional eating. Today, people more often eat by themselves.  

To establish a comprehensive compilation, the researchers searched literature dating back to the 70s. This global literature review was supplemented by discussions with project partners from ten countries: Ghana, India, China, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, France, Turkey, the US and Germany. The research teams compiled a total of 106 facets to distinguish traditional from modern eating behaviour.  

They found out that it is not possible to simply assess traditional or modern eating as good or bad. “We need to examine the individual facets”, says Gudrun Sproesser. For example, there is an association between ultra-processed foods and obesity. However: “Modern eating behaviour is multifaceted, and we cannot generally say that it is bad”, the health psychologist says. In addition to this, classifying eating as traditional or modern depends on the time, place, culture and society. Eating Sushi, for example, is traditional in Japan, whereas here it is a modern development. Consuming dairy products is modern in Asia, but traditional in Germany.  

The trend back to traditional eating, which we also observe in Germany, such as eating local and seasonal foods that is inspired by the sustainability movement, is attributed to postmodern eating behaviour. “Figures, however, show that this is not the majority”, says Gudrun Sproesser. 

For the future she plans to investigate the association between the individual facets and health aspects. 

Key facts:

  • Original publication: Gudrun Sproesser et al. Understanding traditional and modern eating: the TEP10 framework. BMC Public Health, 19, Article number 1606 (2019). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-7844-4
  • Study investigates the differences between traditional and modern eating behaviour
  • Combination of literature review and discussions among researchers from ten countries: Ghana, India, China, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, France, Turkey, the US and Germany 
  • Director of the study: Dr Gudrun Sproesser from the Department of Psychology at the University of Konstanz 
  • Participating researchers: Matthew B. Ruby, La Trobe University, Australia; Naomi Arbit, BetterUp, Inc., USA; Charity S. Akotia, University of Ghana, Ghana; Marle Alvarenga, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil; Rachana Bhangaokar, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, India; Isato Furumitsu, Hiroshima-Shudo University, Japan; Xiaomeng Hu, Tsinghua University, China; Sumio Imada, Hiroshima-Shudo University, Japan; Gülbanu Kaptan, University of Leeds, United Kingdom; Martha Kaufer-Horwitz, Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Médicas y Nutrición Salvador Zubirán, Mexico; Usha Menon, Drexel University, USA; Claude Fischler, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France; Paul Rozin, University of Pennsylvania, USA; Harald T. Schupp, University of Konstanz, Germany; Britta Renner, University of Konstanz, Germany 
  • Supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).