“I want to understand how social media influences our food choices”

Food is essential to human health, but how do we decide what we eat? We talked to a student and a teacher in the Master’s Programme in Human Nutrition and Food-Related Behaviour (HNFB) about nutrition and how societal and cultural factors shape our food choices.

Ansung Kim is a Master’s student from South Korea, who wants to study the psychological factors behind food-related behaviour. Riitta Freese is a university lecturer in human nutrition. She teaches nutrition and health topics in the HNFB programme at the University of Helsinki.

Who is the Master’s Programme in Human Nutrition and Food-Related Behaviour for?

Riitta Freese: “It’s for anybody interested in learning about the significance of food from a biological, cultural or societal perspective. The programme has two study tracks, one is Human Nutrition and the other is Food-Related Behaviour. Whichever study track you choose based on your interests, you will get a multidisciplinary education on topics related to food and nutrition.”

Ansung Kim: “The HNFB programme suits different interests. For example, I wanted to focus on food-related behaviour from the perspective of psychology and the programme suits me well. However, it also fits someone who is more interested in nutrition on a cellular level. The HNFB programme at the University of Helsinki covers a wide array of different topics and allows you to customise your degree. You have a lot of freedom to choose your courses based on your own interests. I was looking at a lot of different programmes in Europe, but the flexibility of this one accommodated my interests the best.”

What is it like to study in the Master’s Programme in Human Nutrition and Food-Related Behaviour?

Freese: “In the HNFB programme, we have a conversational approach to teaching. Many courses include contact teaching, where we discuss topics together in class. The students are taught the necessary theories but also how to use them in practice. On a course called ‘The Health Promotion Project Work’, the students participate in a real-life project that aim to write a health-promotion plan to a community. For example, we had a collaboration with a small city in Finland, where the students planned a programme to control childhood obesity.”

Kim: “I have only started my studies so I’m still attending the introductory courses. It has been nice first to get to know people as well as get a broad perspective of the field. I am looking forward to a specific course called ‘Behaviour Change and Intervention Planning’. On this course, we will be looking at the psychological theories that are applied in behaviour change interventions.

The course will also hopefully help me with my further studies as I would like to write my Master’s thesis on how social media influences food-related behaviour. There are a lot of food pictures on social media and I would like to understand better how they affect the food choices we make.”

What kind of career opportunities does the programme open?

Freese: “There are plenty of opportunities. The strength of the HNFB graduates is that they have skills related to nutritional science, food culture and food selection. They also know how all of these topics relate to individual and societal factors. This is useful for people who are interested in working, for example, in public health organisations or food companies. There are also opportunities to work in international settings – you could do research for some of the specialised agencies in the UN.

Many graduates also work in different types of communications and marketing roles in food companies. Their expertise in the cultural and societal factors that shape people’s food choices is valuable when companies are trying to reach customers.”

Kim: “I’m not entirely sure yet what I want to do after graduating and I want to keep my options open. However, I’m currently considering pursuing my career in marketing research. People are more and more interested in sustainability and it would be nice to help a European sustainable food company reach customers.”

Why do we need experts in Human Nutrition and Food-Related Behaviour?

Freese: “Climate change and global trends have a strong influence on what people eat. We live in a changing food system and people’s ways of eating are becoming increasingly diverse. Some are vegans, others follow the keto diet and many of us eat too much overall. Many ethnic and religious factors also influence people’s eating habits. It is important that we have people who understand how the food system works and what people need in terms of nutrition.”

Kim: ”We need people who are educated in nutrition and understand the different factors that influence food-related behaviour. Right now, nutrition is a hot topic. Many people claim to know about nutrition without being educated in it. They also often spread their message through conventional media as well as social media. It is important that we research the trends in nutrition and food-related behaviour, and provide scientific evidence that helps people to live healthy lives.”

What is it like to study and live in Helsinki?

Kim: “As a student at the University of Helsinki, I have a lot of freedom. Although I have some mandatory courses, I am able to choose and schedule the courses I take myself. This means I have a lot of responsibility, but also that I am able to make my studies suit my needs. For example, my programme allows me to dedicate over 45 out of 120 credits for ‘other studies’. These could be anything, including courses from other faculties and disciplines. At the moment, I’m taking a course on Nordic society and culture from a different faculty! I enjoy the academic atmosphere. People are very supportive.

I have lived in Helsinki only for a short time and I’m still getting used to my new surroundings. I like walking and have been hiking in the national parks nearby. I have also been doing some touristy things, like visiting the popular seaside public sauna called Löyly. It was an amazing experience to come straight out of the sauna and swim in the Baltic Sea.”