Teens, rebellion and healthy eating

A research has found that kids will eat healthy foods to rebel against big food firms


Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

If you want your kids to eat healthy food, don’t tell them how nutritious it is. Instead, tell them healthy food will stick it to the man.

Chicago Booth’s Christopher J. Bryan, along with a team of researchers, used a group of eighth-graders to explore the idea that rebellion and the pursuit of social justice (both natural inclinations in most teens) can be harnessed and used for good.

They find that kids will eat healthy foods to rebel against big food firms. The researchers had one group of eighth-graders at a rural Texas middle school read standard health-class material—including tips on reading nutrition labels and the health benefits of eating well.

Another group read that big food companies spend millions to maximize the addictiveness of their foods, deceive customers into believing their food is healthier than it really is, and specifically target kids and the poor with marketing for the unhealthiest foods.

“We cast the executives behind food marketing as controlling adult authority figures and framed the avoidance of junk food as a way to rebel against their control,” write Bryan and his co-researchers.

The next day the school principal asked students to choose snacks for an upcoming school celebration. The kids who’d read the “stick it to the man” material chose more healthy foods—fruits, carrots, or nuts—over junk food and were more likely to choose water over sugary drinks.

The differences weren’t huge but were significant. The researchers calculate that if these choices were sustained over the long run, they would equate to about a pound of fat lost per person every six to eight weeks. A sustained change of anywhere near this magnitude would put a big dent in the obesity crisis.

“Teens aren’t motivated by long-term health. So, instead of trying to get them to care about something they don’t care about, we framed our appeal in terms of values teens do care about: they want to assert their autonomy from adults and they care about social justice. If they’re able to see healthy eating as a way to live up to those values, it’ll feel motivating and important to them,” explains Bryan.

This article is scheduled to run in The Chicago Booth Review’s winter issue.

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