It’s well known that a healthy diet can help reduce disease risks that are related to overweight or obesity – such as some cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. As part of a healthy diet, experts around the world advise people to consume a variety of foods.
In the UK for example, the NHS’s Eatwell Guide divides foods into food groups (starchy carbohydrates, fruit and veg, dairy or dairy alternatives, proteins, and fats). To get a “balanced diet”, the guide advises people to aim to eat a certain amount of food from each food group.
One reason food variety is included in recommendations is because different foods have different nutrients. Eating a varied diet can benefit our health by reducing risks associated with malnutrition, which happens when we don’t get the right amount of nutrients from our diet.
Malnutrition can cause weak muscles, decrease mobility, increase illness, and lead to breathing problems, among other symptoms.
But what’s defined as “variety” by dietary guidelines can often be confusing and too simplistic – and vastly different from what the general public may define as variety.
Research has shown that in addition to having variety as part of the whole diet, we can measure variety within meals (for example, having multiple courses, or foods from different food groups on our plate) as well as across meals (such as having different foods for lunch each day).
Importantly, research has also found that variety can refer to foods that differ in their characteristics (such as their appearance, flavour, texture or smell), as well as the nutrients found in them.
By this definition, eating a chocolate cake and strawberry cake would be a form of variety, as they differ in flavour, despite having a very similar nutritional profile and belonging to the same food group. It also means that single foods and dishes with mixed ingredients (such as pizzas or sandwiches) can have variety.
At the moment, UK dietary guidelines rely on people using their own discretion to achieve an overall balance of different foods in their diet. But is it easy for consumers to identify variety?
In our recent study, we wanted to find out if people living in the UK recognise food variety – and how they define it. To do this we asked participants to comment on a range of photographs that showed different types of food as part of an online survey.
For example, they were shown supermarket aisles displaying different food brands, meals that consisted of multiple foods from different food groups, and mixed dishes and foods that contained different flavours, colours, and textures – such as salads with a mix of vegetables, or pizzas with different toppings.
Though participants often identified and discussed different types of variety, they tended to only define variety as eating foods from different food groups as part of the whole diet, a definition that is consistent with the use of variety in dietary guidelines.
These results suggest that, when trying to…