Why and How People

All humans eat to survive. They also eat to express appreciation, for a sense of belonging, as part of family customs, and for self-realization. For example, someone who is not hungry may eat a piece of cake that has been baked in his or her honor.

People eat according to learned behaviors regarding etiquette, meal and snack patterns, acceptable foods, food combinations, and portion sizes. Etiquette refers to acceptable behaviors. For example, for some groups it is acceptable to lick one's fingers while eating, while for other groups this is rude behavior. Etiquette and eating rituals also vary depending on whether the meal is formal, informal, or special (such as a meal on a birthday or religious holiday).

A meal is usually defined as the consumption of two or more foods in a structured setting at a set time. Snacks consist of a small amount of food or beverage eaten between meals. A common eating pattern is three meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) per day, with snacks between meals. The components of a meal vary across cultures, but generally include grains, such as rice or noodles; meat or a meat substitute, such as fish, beans, or tofu; and accompaniments, such as vegetables. Various food guides provide suggestions on foods to eat, portion sizes, and daily intake. However, personal preferences, habits, family customs, and social setting largely determine what a person consumes.

What and how people eat is determined by a variety of factors, including economic circumstances, cultural norms, and religious restrictions. Here, an Iranian family sits on the floor and eats from a cloth laden with regional delicacies. [Photograph by Earl and Nazima Kowall. Corbis. Reproduced by permission.]

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