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How To Get Teens To Eat Healthy? Show Them They’ve Been Deceived

We commonly think of teenagers gobbling fast food, Doritos, and sugary drinks without a care for their long-term health—no matter what we say to them. We never seem to know how to get our teenager to eat healthy.

Maybe that’s because we’ve been going about it all wrong.

Appeal to Teens’ Sense of Fairness Instead

A new study from the University of Chicago found that when teens read a fact-based, exposé-style article that portrayed fast food corporations as manipulative marketers using addiction and deceptive labels for financial gain, they took notice.

A previous study found that eighth-grade students who read the negative exposé made better food and drink choices the next day compared with the control group who were only given general materials on healthy eating.

This year’s study included an added element. They added an activity called “Make It True” in which students were given iPads with food ads to mark up with graffiti, transforming the messages in the ads from false to true.

Boys in the “Make It True” group reduced their daily purchases of unhealthy drinks and snacks in the school cafeteria by 31% for a full three months following the study, compared with a control group that read materials on healthy eating and showed no measurable change. Girls’ results were more similar for both groups, and more research is required to determine why that’s the case.

The study’s authors are optimistic that this novel approach could capitalize on teens’ natural sense of fairness and their common desire to question the establishment.

It’s clear that just knowing what’s healthy often isn’t enough for teenagers. They may already know, says nutritionist Jessica O’Connell, R.D., but they’re often “living for the moment and not thinking about a potential weight problem, diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure down the road.”

O’Connell suggests that follow-up may be key in making the results of this study stick. “I have to wonder what a year later would look like,” she says.

To keep momentum going, O’Connell recommends a multi-pronged approach. “Reinforce how nutrient-dense foods help the body now (better clarity for school, energy for sports, better sleep, etc.) along with pointing out the shady marketing tactics of these companies.”

Laura Richards

Laura Richards is a writer, journalist, and mother of four. She resides in the Boston area and has written for many outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe Magazine, Redbook, House Beautiful, Martha Stewart Living, and is a frequent Your Teen contributor.