Do you know that junk food isn’t healthy? Of course you do. Do you eat it anyway? Of course you do! But a new study looks to change that by harnessing youthful rebellion. It shows that teaching adolescents about the ways food companies fool them into thinking junk food is cool can encourage kids to fight back — by eating healthier.
The study’s findings appeared April 15 in Nature Human Behaviour.
The pull of junk foods — ones high in calories and low in nutrients — can be super-strong. They were designed to be tasty. And that makes eating well one of the great health challenges of our time. Everyone from doctors to teachers to the government has been trying to get people to eat well. Yet we keep gobbling junk foods down.
Christopher Bryan is a psychologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. He knew that simply telling teens to eat fewer junk foods hasn’t driven them to do so. Nor has telling them that eating better today could make them healthier in the future. Most kids aren’t worried about long-term health. (This isn’t just a problem for kids. Adults have trouble acting in their future best interests, too.) “Something that tastes delicious right now is likely to win most of the time,” Bryan says.
But he had a couple of insights. The first was that teens and pre-teens like to make their own choices. They also don’t like it when things are unfair. He decided to try framing healthy foods in a new way by tapping into these two great motivators. Would kids rebel against the corporations that sell junk food by choosing to eat healthy? His team’s new study tested this — and showed that many kids would do just that.
Making junk food addictive
Food companies employ many methods to get people to reach for unhealthy foods. “They want you to want it, whether you’re hungry or not,” Bryan says. These companies spend millions of dollars coming up with new ways to promote junk-food consumption, especially among very young kids. They hire scientists to make new junk foods almost impossible to resist. They might do this, for instance, by adding more sugar. Rats fed junk food for six weeks will even walk across a floor that gives them shocks just to get more of the unhealthy chow.
Ads for these foods can be misleading. They often make unhealthy junk food seem healthy by featuring pro athletes, fit-looking pop stars and smiling, active teens. One Gatorade video game for kids, for example, showed Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt slowing down when he drank water but speeding up when he downed the sugary drink. The tactics used in these ads are similar to the ones tobacco companies have used to try to get people to smoke.
“We thought that when the students learned this, it would matter to them,” Bryan says.
His team worked with 8th graders at a Texas school. Half of the 362 students got a lesson that Bryan created. It focused on the ways junk food is advertised, or marketed. Students in this marketing group read about how effective ads can influence people to eat certain junk-food snacks — even when they’re not hungry. And as part of the lesson, the students were given ads and told: “Make it true.” They were told to put graffiti on the ads to show what the food companies aren’t telling people.
A second group received lessons that focused on health. These lessons informed students that junk food is bad for you, and that foods like apples or carrots are a better choice. A bad diet can lead to major weight gain, the students learned. And the lessons pointed out that being overweight puts people at risk for serious diseases. These students also learned how eating well now can keep you healthy when you’re older.
After the lessons, the kids in both groups were asked how they felt about junk food. Most didn’t have positive feelings about these unhealthy foods. In the cafeteria, though, the two groups differed in their behaviors.
Overall, girls from both groups bought slightly fewer unhealthy foods. Boys from the two groups differed far more. Cafeteria records showed those in the group given nutrition-based lessons ate as they had been doing before. But boys in the marketing group bought about one-third fewer junk-food snacks, and one-third more healthier foods. And even three months later, this trend had not changed.
Bryan thinks he knows why. Those offered the marketing lessons now framed the idea of healthy eating around things they truly cared about: fairness, truth and making their own choices.
“They don’t want to be controlled by adults,” Bryan says. They also were seeing that when you skip the junk food, you’re fighting back. In this way, healthy food became a form of rebellion.
Michael Pollan is a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written a lot about food issues, and he sees the research as encouraging. "The more kids learn about the tricks companies use to sell them junk food, the less likely they are to eat it,” he says.
“This study offers welcome hope that the right messages can offer some protection,” adds Kelly Brownell. He directs the World Food Policy Center at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “It would also be very helpful,” he believes, if the government regulated food advertising “so that food companies [couldn’t] promote the worst foods in such aggressive ways.”
Robert Lustig is a doctor at the University of California, San Francisco. He studies causes and treatment of childhood obesity. The new study, he says, shows kids can absorb the same lessons he’s learned in years of research. He offered two rules for students: “One: Question everything. Two: Trust the science, not the humans."
ad Short for advertisement. It may appear in any medium (print, online or broadcast) and has been prepared to sell someone on a product, idea or point of view.
adolescent Someone in that transitional stage of physical and psychological development that begins at the onset of puberty, typically between the ages of 11 and 13, and ends with adulthood.
aggressive (n. aggressiveness) Quick to fight or argue, or forceful in making efforts to succeed or win.
behavior The way something, often a person or other organism, acts towards others, or conducts itself.
diet The foods and liquids ingested by an animal to provide the nutrition it needs to grow and maintain health. (verb) To adopt a specific food-intake plan for the purpose of controlling body weight.
insight The ability to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a situation just by thinking about it, instead of working out a solution through experimentation.
marketing The strategy for getting people to adopt a new policy or buy new products. In many cases, the marketing may rely on advertising or getting celebrities and other trendsetters to endorse a policy or product.
nutrition (adj. nutritious) The healthful components (nutrients) in the diet — such as proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals — that the body uses to grow and to fuel its processes. A scientist who works in this field is known as a nutritionist.
obesity (adj. obese) Extreme overweight. Obesity is associated with a wide range of health problems, including type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
overweight A medical condition where the body has accumulated too much body fat. People are not considered overweight if they weigh more than is normal for their age and height, but that extra weight comes from bone or muscle.
policy A plan, stated guidelines or agreed-upon rules of action to apply in certain specific circumstances. For instance, a school could have a policy on when to permit snow days or how many excused absences it would allow a student in a given year.
psychologist A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behaviors.
tactic An action or plan of action to accomplish a particular feat.
taste One of the basic properties the body uses to sense its environment, especially foods, using receptors (taste buds) on the tongue (and some other organs).