After listening to pleas to “eat your peas, it’ll make you healthy/strong/smart… blah, blah, blah…” for 13 or 14 years, young adolescents navigating through the weirdness of puberty should be excused for rolling their eyes and tuning their parents out. This is the last thing that occurs to many parents: “Maybe Johnny really doesn’t like peas…”
Let’s make one thing clear: Kids are allowed not to like certain foods. Probably their taste buds haven’t yet matured to the point where they might find peas palatable, even delicious. Maybe it’s a textural thing — the pea’s firm outer layer obscuring the squishy, mushy center. Maybe someone or something put the idea into your child’s head that peas are no good/you’ll turn green if you eat them (and so will your poop)/are for “sissies.” I remember when my young son loved to eat whole lobsters like his daddy until one day his physician grandfather taught him all about the eyes and the antennae and the roe (eggs) and the liver (the most delicious part of the lobster, by the way). That was the end of sharing lobster dinners with my son. (Watching my wife de-vein shrimp over the holidays did not have a similar outcome. It helps that he is an adult now.) Anyway, whatever the reason, your kid isn’t refusing to let a single pea into his or her mouth just to piss you off. At least, not at first.
If we really want our kids to eat peas or lobsters or anything that is remotely healthy, it turns out that telling them that the food is “healthy” or “good for them” isn’t going to work, especially for teenagers. A new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, proposes that parents take a different tack: appeal to your teenager’s emerging sense of social responsibility and justice:
“We took a two-pronged approach to this,” Bryan says. “First, our healthy eating message was framed as an exposé of manipulative food industry marketing practices that influence and deceive adolescents and others into eating larger quantities of unhealthy foods.”
The researchers also described journalistic accounts of such industry practices as engineering processed foods to maximize addictiveness and to encourage overconsumption, as well as using deceptive labeling to make unhealthy products appear healthy.
Additionally, researchers outlined manipulative industry practices like disproportionately targeting poor people and very young children with advertisements for the unhealthiest products.
“We framed healthy eating as a way to ‘stick it to the man’ – 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.”
And it worked.
The more than 500 eighth grade students who participated in this study didn’t receive any “nutrition talks.” In fact, they didn’t even know their food choices were being monitored. What they did know is that they wanted to be in control:
The treatment resulted in a 7 percentage point increase in the rate at which teens chose to forgo sugary drinks in favor of water. It also led to an 11 percentage point increase in the rate at which they opted to forgo at least one unhealthy snack (chips or cookies) in favor of something healthy (fruit, carrots, or nuts).
“It is exciting to consider what the size of these effects would look like if extrapolated to average daily consumption,” Bryan says.
So Bryan did the math. The result could be a new psychological tool in the fight against childhood obesity: motivate healthier eating in teenagers by harnessing their emerging social values:
For example, if sustained over time, a 7 percent reduction in adolescents’ consumption of carbohydrates would correspond to one pound of body fat lost (or not gained) roughly every 6 weeks for boys and every 8 weeks for girls.
Policy analysts argue that preventing obesity is both more effective and less expensive than treating people who are already obese. The potential for this new “value harnessing” approach could lead to lasting change.
“This approach provides an immediate, symbolic benefit for resisting temptation: feeling like a high-status and respect-worthy person right now because one is acting in accordance with important values shared with one’s peers,” Bryan says.
Now eat your peas. Really. You’ll like them.