With obesity rates climbing and traditional school-based preventative programs to improve eating habits struggling to show effects in adolescents, there is a pressing need to reconsider ways to promote healthy behaviors for teens. In a new paper published in PNAS, a research team including Mindset Scholar David Yeager designed a study exploring ways to motivate adolescents to make healthy choices.

Eighth grade students were randomly assigned to either a treatment or control group. The control group was assigned to read an article similar to traditional content in health class, with scientific information about how the body processes food and how this can affect health and weight.

Meanwhile, the treatment group read an article that discussed how food companies manipulate consumers, specifically targeting both young children and poor individuals. The research team hypothesized that students in the treatment group would be more likely to make healthy choices due to the focus of the article on providing individuals with both autonomy and a purpose that promotes social justice, two factors that tend to motivate adolescents.

After reading the articles, students in both groups were asked to choose snacks to eat during a celebration in a different class. Adolescents who were assigned to the treatment condition chose fewer junk food options than those in the control group.

These findings suggest that framing healthy eating as a way to assert autonomy from food companies and to take a stand for social justice could increase the appeal of healthy eating behaviors for teens. This work provides a first step in designing developmentally appropriate programs for adolescents and a basis for further research.

For more coverage on this study check out the following media features:

New York Times: Can teenage defiance be manipulated for good?

NY Mag: Modern teens willing to eat healthy if it will piss off their parents

The Guardian: Teenagers more likely to eat healthily if they think it is rebellious

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