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Teen Rebels Turn Away From Junk Food

Research shows that teenage boys pick healthier foods when these choices are framed as rebellious.

We’ve long known that junk food marketing shapes the way our youth eat. After all, on any given day teenagers are exposed to a lot more advertisements for candy bars and soda than, say, cauliflower. Such is the power of food marketing on the growing brain. Now, a study in the April 2019 issue of Nature Human Behaviour has found that tapping into the rebellious inclinations of teenagers may get them to eat more salads.

Working with a group of eighth graders at a suburban middle school in Texas, researchers from the University of Chicago presented half of the students with a traditional curriculum that stressed the importance of eating healthy foods from all food groups. Meanwhile, the second group, deemed the “exposé intervention” group, was introduced to recent investigative reporting that illustrated how big food companies develop tasty junk food and then deceptively market to vulnerable demographics—including teens.

In the 3 months of school following the experiments, boys in the exposé group bought about 30% less unhealthy food than they did before the program. Healthier cafeteria purchases, such as water, fruit and plain milk, surged in popularity, while options like cookies, sugary drinks and chips fell out of favor. Results were less impressive in girls, which may speak to gender-based factors like body image. Nonetheless, maybe Fast Food Nation should be required reading in schools.

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a James Beard Award–winning food journalist, dietitian and author of the cookbook Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sport + Adventure (VeloPress 2016). He has written for dozens of magazines, including Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Shape, Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness.

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