As most every parent knows, if you really need your child to do something, sometimes the only way to make it happen is to encourage them to do the exact opposite—even, or rather, especially, when it comes to eating healthy food.
Now there’s science to tell you you’re not (completely) crazy for doing it, either. The news comes via a study published in the recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers made the discovery after studying nearly 500 middle-school-aged children in Texas. The researchers divided the children at random into several different groups—one of the groups was recommended a healthy diet, eschewing high-sugar and high-fat foods, while the other group was exposed to dishonest marketing tactics by food companies used to increase sales and even deceive consumers into thinking unhealthy foods were actually healthy.
“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,” wrote the researchers.
Then, a day later, the students were asked to make food choices in what appeared to be a class unrelated to the previous day’s research.
“An interesting pattern emerged,” explains the New York Times. “Teenagers who had read the exposé article chose fewer junk food items than those in the control groups. They were 11 percentage points more likely to forgo at least one unhealthy snack, like Oreos, Cheetos or Doritos, in favor of fruit, baby carrots or trail mix, and seven percentage points more likely to choose water over Coca-Cola, Sprite or Hi-C.”
In other words, the kids appeared to be rebelling against Big Food painted as deceptive in the exercise the day before.
“Of course, we don’t know if this behavior change will last longer than a day,” Amanda Ripley wrote in the Times. And the researchers are already planning further experiments to track food behaviors after being exposed to corporate deceptions.
“What’s really exciting about this study and other work like it is that if you can appeal to kids’ sense of wanting to not be duped, you empower them to take a stand,” Dr. Ronald E. Dahl, director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Times.
Of course, every parent wants to know: How can this be implemented at home? If the study shows us anything, it’s all about the subtlety. While encouraging say, my toddler, to definitely not eat all of the broccoli on her plate might elicit a few defiant bites, a tween or teen is not going to be so easily coerced.
But the same tactics the researchers used may just work. For example, taking your teen shopping and pointing to deceptive advertising on product packaging with an “as if we would be fooled by that” kind of tone, may actually spark some rebellious eating. Of course, it may not, either. But at least you’ll know your efforts to get your kids to eat healthy aren’t totally in vain (and there are millions of parents just as desperate as you!).
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