Taking dietary habits into account: A Computational method for modeling food choices that goes beyond price

Rahmatollah Beheshti, Jessica C. Jones-Smith, Takeru Igusa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Computational models have gained popularity as a predictive tool for assessing proposed policy changes affecting dietary choice. Specifically, they have been used for modeling dietary changes in response to economic interventions, such as price and income changes. Herein, we present a novel addition to this type of model by incorporating habitual behaviors that drive individuals to maintain or conform to prior eating patterns. We examine our method in a simulated case study of food choice behaviors of low-income adults in the US. We use data from several national datasets, including the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the USDA, to parameterize our model and develop predictive capabilities in 1) quantifying the influence of prior diet preferences when food budgets are increased and 2) simulating the income elasticities of demand for four food categories. Food budgets can increase because of greater affordability (due to food aid and other nutritional assistance programs), or because of higher income. Our model predictions indicate that low-income adults consume unhealthy diets when they have highly constrained budgets, but that even after budget constraints are relaxed, these unhealthy eating behaviors are maintained. Specifically, diets in this population, before and after changes in food budgets, are characterized by relatively low consumption of fruits and vegetables and high consumption of fat. The model results for income elasticities also show almost no change in consumption of fruit and fat in response to changes in income, which is in agreement with data from the World Bank's International Comparison Program (ICP). Hence, the proposed method can be used in assessing the influences of habitual dietary patterns on the effectiveness of food policies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0178348
JournalPloS one
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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