Harnessing adolescent values to motivate healthier eating

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences asks what can be done to reduce unhealthy eating among adolescents. Researchers hypothesized that aligning healthy eating with important and widely shared adolescent values would produce the needed motivation. A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled experiment with eighth graders evaluated the impact of a treatment that framed healthy eating as consistent with the adolescent values of autonomy from adult control and the pursuit of social justice. Healthy eating was suggested as a way to take a stand against manipulative and unfair practices of the food industry, such as engineering junk food to make it addictive and marketing it to young children.

Compared with traditional health education materials or to a non–food-related control, this treatment led eighth graders to see healthy eating as more autonomy-assertive and social justice-oriented behavior and to forgo sugary snacks and drinks in favor of healthier options a day later in an unrelated context. Public health interventions for adolescents may be more effective when they harness the motivational power of that group’s existing strongly held values. Citation: Bryan CJ, Yeager DS, Hinojosa CP, Chabot A, Bergen H, Kawamura M, Steubing F. Harnessing adolescent values to motivate healthier eating. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2016, published ahead of print September 12, 2016.