World

Eating Well and Life Satisfaction: A Global View

by Brett Pelham and Zsolt Nyiri

Relation between eating and life satisfaction depends on world region

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Combined data from Gallup Polls conducted between 2006 and 2008 show that a substantial portion of the world's population said that they or their families had gone hungry in the past year. Median values range from 56% in Africa to 3% in Europe. These values are consistent with the results of Gallup Polls on related topics.

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In light of the large regional differences in hunger, it is possible that there are also regional differences in how hunger is related to life satisfaction. One might suspect that the relation between hunger and life satisfaction would be the strongest in Africa, where going hungry is most likely to be a matter of life and death. This is not the case. In fact, the relation between hunger and life satisfaction is weaker in Africa than in any other world region -- and is strongest in Europe. More specifically, the "hunger gap" (the gap in life satisfaction between those who said they had gone hungry and those who said they had not gone hungry) in Europe is twice as large as the hunger gap in Africa (1.8 points in Europe versus 0.8 points in Africa). In Asia and the Americas, where the hunger gaps are 1.3 and 1.5, respectively, the hunger gap falls about halfway between the African and Europe extremes. Another perspective on these findings is that the well-established regional differences in life satisfaction diminish greatly when focusing on people who said they had gone hungry in the past year. Europeans who said they had gone hungry and Asians who said they had gone hungry, at least, were about as low in life satisfaction as Africans who said they had gone hungry.

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These data do not suggest that people in Europe are hungrier, or physically suffer more, than people in Africa. Instead, the hunger gap may be more pronounced in Europe because Europeans, because of their relative wealth, are more likely to take the availability of food for granted.

More fine-grained analyses support interpretations based on national wealth. In less affluent European countries, such as most former Soviet Union (FSU) countries, citizens are more likely to report having gone hungry. In FSU countries (whether in Europe or in Asia), the hunger gap is not as substantial as that of Europe. Thus, removing the European FSU countries from this European analysis increases the size of the hunger gap even more. Further, in wealthy countries outside of Europe (such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan) the hunger gap is on par with that found in Europe. An unweighted average of the hunger gap in these four wealthy countries is 2 points.

Although people in wealthy countries rarely have to worry about whether they eat, they may often worry about what they eat. Is there a connection between eating healthy and life satisfaction? This, too, depends to a great degree on world region.

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In Africa, those who said they had eaten healthy the day before being surveyed reported higher levels of life satisfaction than those who did not report eating healthy. In contrast, in Europe this effect virtually disappears. In Europe, that is, there is no meaningful tendency for those who said they ate healthy yesterday to report higher levels of life satisfaction.

The Bottom Line

In wealthy countries worldwide (in Europe and elsewhere) many people have presumably resolved to eat healthier in 2009 than they did in 2008. At the other extreme, many of the world's citizens are simply hoping to eat. Whether the world will be a happier place in 2009 than it was in 2008 may depend, in part, on people's ability to access, and perhaps to appreciate, healthy food.

Survey Methods

Results are based on aggregated data across as many as three years of telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted between 2006 and 2008 with at least 39,000 adults in each world region for the analysis involving hunger and at least 18,000 in each region for the analysis involving healthy eating. For all of the regions reported here, confidence intervals for life satisfaction were within +0.1 points from the means shown here. However, it is important to note that there was a great deal of variation among countries within each region. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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