It's no secret that the teen years can be challenging: young teens have a heightened sensitivity to perceived injustice and react against authority. And their newfound social conscience and desire for autonomy can motivate many of their decisions -- even food choices.
A new study, from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the University of Texas, found that by appealing to widely-held adolescent values, it's possible to reduce unhealthy eating habits and motivate better food choices among adolescents.
The goal of the study was to portray healthy eating as a way to take a stand against injustice -- to stand up for vulnerable people who lack the ability to protect themselves.
To capture the motivating power of these values, researchers worked with groups of eighth graders to reshape their perception of healthy eating as an act of independence that serves the purpose of social justice.
Healthy eating framed as way to rebel against food industry practices that encourage overeating
First, the healthy eating message was framed as an exposé of manipulative food industry marketing practices that influence and deceive adolescents and others into eating larger quantities of unhealthy foods.
The researchers also described such industry practices as engineering processed foods to maximize addictiveness and to encourage overconsumption, as well as using deceptive labeling to make unhealthy products appear healthy.
Additionally, researchers outlined manipulative industry practices like disproportionately targeting poor people and very young children with advertisements for the unhealthiest products.
The research team framed healthy eating as a way to 'stick it to the man' -- they cast the food marketing executives as controlling adult authority figures and framed the avoidance of junk food as a way to rebel against their control.
And it worked.
The test subjects chose fewer junk food options as snacks and preferred water over sugary sodas. The teens made the choices outside the context of the nutrition talk, when they were unaware their choices were being tracked.
The treatment resulted in a 7 percentage point increase in the rate at which teens chose to forgo sugary drinks in favor of water. It also led to an 11 percentage point increase in the rate at which they opted to forgo at least one unhealthy snack (chips or cookies) in favor of something healthy (fruit, carrots, or nuts).
If sustained over time, a 7 percent reduction in a teenager’s consumption of carbohydrates would correspond to one pound of body fat lost (or not gained) roughly every 6 weeks for boys and every 8 weeks for girls.
"This approach provides an immediate, symbolic benefit for resisting temptation: feeling like a high-status and respect-worthy person right now because one is acting in accordance with important values shared with one's peers," the researchers said.
Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 23, 2016.
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