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Teenagers Will Eat Healthily If They Think They’re Sticking It to the Man

According to a new study from the University of Texas, teenagers can be encouraged to eat healthy foods if they see doing so as a way to rebel against authority.
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB

Teenage rebellion is a rite of passage as key to adolescent development as body odour and unexpected hair growth. Even your mum will have once had an ill-advised boyfriend with a Harley-Davidson, or the inexplicable urge to rebel against the her parents' loving and supportive upbringing by dying her hair blue.

But what if we could use teen defiance as a power for good, rather than regrettable romantic partners/haircuts and shouting matches?


According to a new study from the University of Texas (UT), we can. It claims that teenagers can be encouraged to eat healthy foods if they see doing so as a way to rebel against authority.

READ MORE: This Is Why Teenagers Aren't Drinking Alcopops Anymore

Published online yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, the research suggests that informing teenagers about the manipulative tricks used by big companies to sell junk food reduces their taste for unhealthy snacks.

Study co-author David Yeager told the Guardian: "If the normal way of seeing healthy eating is that it is lame, then you don't want to be the kind of person who is a healthy eater. But if we make healthy eating seem like the rebellious thing that you do, you make your own choices, you fight back against injustice, then it could be seen as high status."

According to the research, turning food choices into an act of defiance is more successful in getting adolescents to avoid junk food than simply nagging them to eat their greens. Sorry Mum.

The UT researchers came to this conclusion after conducting two studies involving 536 US schoolchildren aged between 13 and 15-years-old. The teens were randomly split into two groups, with one being assigned an article to read on the long-term health benefits of eating a balanced diet. The other group read an expose on the manipulative techniques used by the food industry to sell unhealthy products, such as deceptive labelling and advertising that targets children from poor backgrounds.


The researchers explained: "We cast the executives behind food marketing as controlling adult authority figures, and framed the avoidance of junk food as a way to rebel against their control."

Both groups of teens then wrote an essay on how they might take action based on the articles they had just read.

The next day, in an unrelated class, the teenagers were each given a snack-pack as a reward from their headteacher for hard work. They could choose the contents of the pack themselves, deciding between snacks like Oreos and Doritos, or healthier options such as carrots and trail mix.

And this, say the researchers, is where good ol' teen rebellion began to show. Just 43 percent of the teens who had learned about the sneaky tricks of the food industry chose unhealthy options, compared to 54 percent of those who had received the health-related information the day before. There was a smaller decrease in preference for sugary drinks but overall, the sugar content of the food-industry-woke teens' snacks was reduced by 9 percent.

READ MORE: Giving Your Kid Sips of Beer Can Turn Them Into a Teenage Drunk

Yeager explained to the Guardian: "Once you see [healthy eating] as a high-status thing to do, people are more willing to do it of their own free will when they have their own choice in a room surrounded by their peers."

The teens who had read the expose were also more likely to agree with statements relating to social justice, such as "When I eat healthy, I am helping to make the world a better place," as well as become angered by adverts for fizzy drinks.

With the recently released National Diet and Nutrition Survey finding that British teens are consuming more than triple the recommended daily amount of sugar, sticking it to the man with salad might just be the obesity-tackling solution we need.