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How to steer teens away from junk food? A new study may have some clues

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Teenagers’ notorious desire to rebel could be used to steer them toward healthier choices in the school cafeteria, or so suggests a recent study, the results of which were published this week in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

For the study, researchers presented a group of eighth-grade students in Texas with an “expose-style” article framing junk food marketing as a manipulative practice waged on primarily young and poor consumers by profit-seeking corporations.

The following day, students who had read the article purchased less junk food in the cafeteria and tended to choose water instead of soda, according to a news release about the study from the University of Texas at Austin.

A similar, yet more interactive activity conducted with another set of eighth-graders also led to healthier food choices, when weighed against a control group, for the rest of the school year, a duration of three months.

“Most past interventions seemed to assume that alerting teenagers to the negative long-term health consequences of bad diets would be an effective way to motivate them to change their behavior,” said Christopher Bryan, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago who led the study, in the release. “That’s clearly a problematic assumption. We thought it could be the main reason why no one has been able to get teenagers to change their eating habits in a lasting way.”

Over the three months, boys who participated in the activity purchased unhealthy items 31% less often than those in the control group, who received traditional information about eating healthy.

The difference between the two groups was less pronounced among girls, an outcome that researchers hypothesized could be the result of the pressure on young women to be thin, a culture in which the more traditional information, which discussed calories, could also steer them away from junk food. 

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