Make healthy eating an act of rebellion for teenagers

How do you make adolescents eat healthily? Simple: tell them that giving up fast food will really annoy someone in authority.

Anti-obesity strategies have generally hit a snag with teenagers. Convincing people to forgo chips and fizzy drinks in favour of vegetables and water requires getting them to defer gratification in favour of a better life in a far-off future. However, adolescents are neurologically the least capable people at imagining the future or limiting short-term pleasures.

So researchers tried a different tactic. Instead of telling them that a healthy lifestyle would help them to live longer, they framed it as an act of rebellion against the nefarious capitalist system.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers described how they crafted a healthy eating campaign for teenagers, selling it as “an exposé of manipulative food industry marketing practices designed to influence and deceive adolescents into eating larger quantities of unhealthy foods than they otherwise would choose to eat”. To do this, they essentially conflated food industry executives with the teenagers’ mums.

The results were impressive. More than 500 Texan schoolchildren were exposed to either a conventional campaign or one that “framed healthy eating as consistent with the values of autonomy from adult control and the pursuit of social justice”. The next day those who had heard the latter campaign were 11 percentage points more likely to take fruit or vegetables in favour of chips or cookies and 7 points more likely to take water over soft drinks.

Whether it will translate into more long-term behaviour remains to be seen. The scientists behind the research said that the crucial point could be that they had shown that, when influencing adolescents, the rewards needed to be immediate rather than longterm.

The research, they said, “offers an immediate symbolic benefit for resisting temptation: feeling like a high-status person because one is acting in accordance with values shared with one’s peers”. Those values being, namely, annoying adults.

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