Educating teenagers about junk food and how adverts are used to influence them reduces their purchasing habits by 31%, US researchers have said.
Tackling obesity and type 2 diabetes rates worldwide is of significant importance, including among children. In a new study, a team from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business wanted to see how targeting young people and their natural desire to rebel, impacted their food choices.
Part of the study involved giving a group of students an article about how big food companies try to manipulate consumers into buying addictive junk food.
They then took part in an activity which involved viewing different food adverts on tablets and drawing truthful slogans about the product across the image. The idea behind this exercise was to help reinforce the negative portrayal of how food is marketed.
Co-author of the study, Christopher Brya, an assistant professor from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said: “Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food, to connect it with feelings of happiness and fun.
“What we’ve done is turn that around on the food marketers by exposing this manipulation to teenagers, triggering their natural strong aversion to being controlled by adults. If we could make more kids aware of that, it might make a real difference.”
Tracking the young people’s food choices at the school cafeteria showed that boys particularly made healthier eating choices, reducing their consumption of fizzy drinks and junk food by 31% for the rest of the school year.
Co-author David Yeager, Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Texas, added: “This study shows it’s possible to change behaviour during adolescence using a light-touch intervention.
“Adolescence is a developmental stage when even the lengthiest health promotion approaches have had virtually no effect. Because so many social problems, from education to risky behaviour, have their roots in the teen years, this study paves the way for solutions to some of the thorniest challenges for promoting global public health.”
The findings of the study have been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

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