Letting teenagers know they are being manipulated by food marketers may be a simple way to encourage healthier eating, according to research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Many of the leading chronic diseases threatening human health, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, are the result of poor dietary choices. These dietary habits may start in childhood, in part due to pervasive and carefully orchestrated advertisements from the junk food industry.
Teenagers are among those who are heavily targeted by food manufacturers, and public health researchers have long been looking for ways to get teens to eat better.
Tapping into their natural desire to rebel against adult authority may be Key to countering the manipulation spread via junk food ads.
No one likes to be deceived, even in adolescence.
In preliminary research, a group of 8th Graders read an exposé that revealed the manipulative practices and deceptive product labels used by marketing companies aimed at pedaling addictive junk food in order to boost their profits.
A control group of students read conventional information about healthier eating.
The next day, the students who read the exposé chose to eat less junk food and drink water instead of soda.
In the next part of the study, another group of 8th Graders read the exposé and were sent images of marketing material on their tablets. They were told to draw over the ads in graffiti style to make them true.
It turned out that those who read about the junk food industry’s manipulation chose healthier foods for the remainder of the school year — a period of about 3 months. Teen boys, in particular, a group that’s notoriously keen on junk food, reduced their junk food intake by 31% compared to those who read material on healthy eating.
Study author Christopher J. Bryan of the University of Chicago said in a news release: “Most past interventions seemed to assume that alerting teenagers to the negative long-term health consequences of bad diets would be an effective way to motivate them to change their behavior. That’s clearly a problematic assumption. We thought it could be the main reason why no one has been able to get teenagers to change their eating habits in a lasting way.”3
Instead, tapping into teens’ natural desire to rebel against authority proved to be an effective way to prompt significant changes in dietary choices.
Teen girls also responded to reading about junk food makers’ manipulative marketing practices, showing a more negative immediate response to junk food. However, their purchases in the cafeteria stayed mostly the same regardless of which material they read.
The researchers speculated that girls may have responded more to the healthy eating material because it talked about calories, and they felt social pressure to be thin. However, the exposé material may be preferable, as it led to similar eating habits with less potential for body shaming.4
“These findings suggest that re-framing unhealthy dietary choices as incompatible with important values could be a low-cost, scalable solution to producing lasting, internalized change in adolescents’ dietary attitudes and choices,” the researchers explained.
In the last 30 years, the incidence of childhood overweight and obesity has grown by 47%. The marketing of junk food has contributed to this increase, as it encourages the repeated purchase and consumption of unhealthy foods. In order to test just how pervasive junk food marketing is in the average child’s life, researchers used wearable cameras that took photos every 7 secs.
A group of 168 children wore the cameras for 4 days, revealing they were exposed to junk food marketing 27.3X a day, at home, in public spaces and even at school.
Marketing for sugary drinks, fast food, candy and snack foods were the types most commonly encountered by the children.
The researchers believe:“This research suggests that children live in an obesogenic food marketing environment that promotes obesity as a normal response to their everyday environment. Children are more than twice as likely to be exposed to non-core food marketing, not recommended to be marketed to children, than core food marketing, and to be exposed multiple times a day across various settings and via multiple media. All children, regardless of socio-economic position, were exposed to more non-core than core food marketing, and there appears to be some ethnic patterning.”
A report from the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that junk food companies often target Black and Hispanic consumers. “Therefore, greater exposure to this marketing by Hispanic and Black children and teens, both in the media and in their communities, likely contributes to diet-related health disparities affecting communities of color, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”
Further, it’s been shown that intake of junk foods increases significantly during or shortly after exposure to junk food ads.
Junk food is highly addictive, and it’s easy to become biologically hooked on these high-sugar foods. The more junk food you eat, the more you will likely crave, and this is true for children, too.
However, breaking free from the trap and focusing your diet on real food instead is 1 of the best health moves you can make, and children are no exception.
For younger kids, try to get them involved in meal planning, shopping for healthy foods and cooking. You can even plant a vegetable garden together. Ultimately, when kids are young, you’re the best role model for a healthy diet, so choose to eat real foods, and your kids will follow suit.
For teens, when they start to rebel, use it to their own advantage. As the featured study showed, telling your teen about the profit-driven motives behind junk food ads may be enough to help trigger a newfound desire for healthier eating.
Eat healthy, Be healthy, Live lively