You are what you eat, but now it appears to go backwards too: You eat the way you are.
One could eat a traditional Estonian meal of potatoes, white sauce and fried meat, or pursue a healthier and more varied menu – it depends on the character. A large-scale study carried out in Estonia revealed clear links between personal traits and food preference.
Rene Mõttus, a researcher at the Psychology Department of the University of Tartu, observed nearly 1,700 Estonian residents with the help of his colleagues. The age of the subjects varied from 18 to 89, and they had all agreed to be donors for the Estonian Genome Centre.
Who eats what?
At first, a person participating in the study filled out a questionnaire about the amount of food he/she ate in an ordinary week, as well as details about different foods. In subsequent analyses, the percentages of thirteen foodstuffs were taken into account and, according to their balance, a person’s food preference was considered to be either health-conscious or traditional. In the first case, the menu contained more cereal and dairy products, as well as fish, vegetables, and fruit.
A more traditional choice included potatoes, meat, sausages, and black bread.
All participants filled out a test that psychologists use to measure five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and agreeableness. Each person was also characterised by a close friend or family member.
The ones preferring healthier food had lower scores of neuroticism, whilst being more extraverted, open and conscientious. The fans of more traditional food – potatoes, sauce, and meat – stuck out as less open.
Previous studies have already shown that people who avoid fatty foods and eat more fibre are more open. ’Openness’ is defined as tending towards alternation and diversity, and being keen to try new things.
This year, in collaboration with his Scottish colleagues, Mõttus performed a study amongst elderly Scottish people and found out that more open people preferred the Mediterranean diet – fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and poultry, and rice. They avoided fast food, (semi)artificial foods and sweets.
More neurotic individuals, on the other hand, didn’t care much for the Mediterranean fare and loved fast food. Agreeability and conscientiousness were linked to health-conscious nutrition.
Curiosity is necessary
In an article describing the Estonian study, the scientists proposed a hypothesis that in the modern world, stuffed with all kinds of food, some foodstuffs that are advertised as healthy might seem too foreign, and one has to be more open and curious to try them out. When there is less curiosity, the traditional way is a safer bet.
The Estonian study also showed more educated people and females to be more health-conscious. The less educated, as well as males, were the ones who would rather be caught munching traditional potatoes, sauce, and steak.
Mõttus R, Realo A, Allik J, Deary IJ, Esko T, & Metspalu A (2012). Personality traits and eating habits in a large sample of Estonians. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association PMID: 22268715