Knowledge regarding the food habits of man is provided by many disciplines. The social scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and cultural geographers have been concerned with man’s culture, social activities and food habits. A number of factors influence the food habits. These include, among others, educational and economic level of the community, availability and cost of foods and social and cultural practices.

Once the food habits are established, they are handed down from generation to generation. In the present Chapter, the following aspects of the problem have been discussed:


Religious beliefs

Traditional beliefs

Food fads and cults

Changing food habits.


Early man ate whatever food he could get to satisfy his hunger. The food he could get consisted of what he could cultivate in the locality. Soil, climate, water and local agricultural practices determined the types of foods that can be grown in the locality. This may explain the large scale cultivation of certain roots and tubers (cassava, yam and sweet potato) and maize (corn) in many countries of Africa, Central and South America over the past several centuries. Consumption of diets based predominantly on these staple foods has given rise to large scale incidence of protein-calorie malnutrition among preschool children in these regions. Pellagra was also widely prevalent among poor maize eaters. Rice is the main food crop in the tropical countries where rainfall is high and water is available for irrigation, while millets are cultivated in areas of low rainfall. Incidence of beriberi was high among the population consuming highly milled raw rice. Wheat is mainly cultivated in temperate regions.


The various religions of the world have had some influence on the food habits. For example, Muslims are forbidden from eating pork and Hindus from eating beef. Such religious beliefs have been practiced over the past several hundred years.


Traditional beliefs in food habits are still prevalent with a large majority of the population who are illiterate or ignorant regarding the nutritive value of foods. These beliefs influence profoundly the pattern of food eaten. In South Pacific Islands, it is believed that certain shell fish eaten during pregnancy will cause the child to be born with scales on its head. In Ethiopia, a pregnant woman must avoid roasted meat as it is believed to induce abortion. Eggs are thought to cause baldness or sterility and hence not consumed by pregnant women is believed to lead to abortion, and consumption of garlic by lactating women will increase milk production. Milk which is an essential protective food in Western countries is disliked in many Asian and African countries and not even fed to weaned infants and preschool children.

In some parts of India (West Bengal), It was believed that consumption of milk and fish at the same meal will lead to the development of leprosy and leucoderma. Other similar beliefs include the following:

Consumption of brain will lead to premature graying of hair and baldness of head

Consumption of tongue of goat by children will make them talkative

Eating goat’s leg by children will lead to improper development of knees and ankle joints

Consumption of pig’s stomach by girls and young women will darken their complexion

Consumption of meat from the underside of an animal by young married women will prevent child-bearing.

In some parts of Africa, it is believed that eggs, if given to children before the teeth have erupted, will lead to stupidity, fish will produce skin rashes and meat will make children greedy.



Foods are classified as ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ by different cultures in many countries. ‘Hot’ foods are believed to produce more heat in the body and lead to the development of boils. ‘Cold’ foods are supposed to lower the heat production and lead to the development of cold, sore throat, etc. Meat, eggs, legumes, nuts and oilseeds are supposed to be ‘hot’ foods, while fruits, vegetables and milk are supposed to be ‘cold’ foods.


Pica is a common practice among pregnant women and children in many countries. Pica is the habit of eating dirt, clay, chalk, lime stone, plaster, ashes, starch, etc. This habit has been reported since ancient times from Asia, Africa, Europe, and North, Central and South America among pregnant women. There is a belief that the baby will not be normal if one does not eat clay or starch.



Exaggerated claims for some foods:- Hippocrates wrote of the health value of certain foods. Food fads of various kinds have persisted ever since. According to Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine many foods are reputed to have curative properties for some diseases (Aman, 1969). For example, bitter gourd is reputed to cure diabetes mellitus, but without any scientific basis. Yogurt, wheat germ, Black strap molasses, brewers’ yeast and honey have been widely promoted by some food faddists as possessing extraordinary nutritional and medicinal qualities. Fruits and vegetables cultivated using organic manure (Compost, etc.) are believed to possess greater nutritive value than foods grown with inorganic fertilizers. Brown sugar is reputed to possess higher nutritive value than white sugar.

A survey made by a Committee of the American Dietetic Association showed that the following to be more commonly observed food fallacies in U.S.A.:

Fruits, especially citrus and tomato, are too acid to be handled by the body,

Garlic cures high blood pressure

Beets build blood

Foods cooked in aluminium vessels will cause cancer

The following combinations of foods are poisonous: Milk and orange juice or other citrus fruits; Milk and fish.

Raw cucumbers without salt are poisonous

A good way to diet is to skip breakfast

Honey is not fattening

Meat gives strength

Fruits juices do not contribute calories to the diet

Toast has fewer calories than bread

Vegetable fats and oils can be used in any quantity and not fattening

Adults need no milk,

Skim milk has no nutritive value

Pork liver is less nutritious than beef or calve’s liver

Yogurt is an aid to retaining youth and beauty

Natural foods are the only ones that are safe for the consumer.

White shelled eggs are more nutritious than brown shelled eggs.

Large amounts of gelatin dissolved in water and taken as a food supplement will strengthen finger nails

The nutritive value of foods raised on ‘depleted’ soil is poor and

Water is fattening.


Most of the above beliefs have no scientific basis.

Changes due to technology: – Milled rice and white flour are preferred to under milled rice and whole meal flour because of their eye appeal. Sago (starch globules) and corn starch are considered as nutritious foods and used for feeding weaned infants and preschool children in some countries.



Cults: – For many years, vegetarianism has been practiced on religious grounds by Hindus, Buddhists, Zorastrians, jains, and others. Strict vegetarians do not even consume milk and hence suffer from vitamin B12 deficiency.




Food fads and faulty food habits are the important contributory causes for the wide prevalence of malnutrition among preschool children, expectant and nursing mothers in developing countries. These can be overcome only by education in nutrition. The guiding principles in the educational process are:

Change cannot be superimposed but must be integrated into the existing cultural pattern

Proposed changes should be acceptable to the individuals concerned

The changes should be minimal and use such foods which are familiar to the people concerned

Participation of representatives of the group in implementing the proposed change is essential and

The individuals should be satisfied that the changes in food habits have improved their health.