I recently revealed that the way I feed my two teenage sons looks different after divorce. Comfort foods come first so that dinner time is as relaxed as possible and conversation can flow. It's more important than ever to connect with my sons around that table. I cook with as many natural and healthy ingredients as I possibly can, but the days of struggling each night to get my boys to eat three colors of vegetables has gone by the wayside.
So when I read about a study that found framing healthy eating as an act of defiance could be the way to get teens to eat healthy, I was curious. How can you get kids to think eating healthy is defiant? Do you use reverse psychology and tell them they have to eat their chocolate cake and aren't allowed to have a salad?
No. The study didn't look at defiance against parental eating rules. It looked at defiance against the food industry. When teens were told that the food industry was being manipulative and unfair in its marketing, they tended to choose healthier foods, a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found.
My first thought was that this wouldn't work on my sons. I've been teaching them about marketing tricks since they were young. For most of their lives, I've been lecturing them about how food scientists have found just the right addictive ingredients to add to foods like Doritos. They are over mom's lecturing.
But for teens who didn't grow up with a parent who writes about food for a living, there's an answer. The kids in the study were taught about the way the food industry — an industry run by adults — successfully controls them, and it brought out their desire to have "autonomy from adult control."
It's all about autonomy
Researchers, who did a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled experiment with 536 eighth-graders, concluded that instead of traditional education materials, a better way to get adolescents to eat healthier is to get them "to see healthy eating as a more autonomy-assertive and social justice-oriented behavior." When students were introduced to healthy eating this way, they tended to choose healthier options the next day.
Interesting. But still, this isn't going to work for my boys. Plus, the study didn't follow these kids long term, so there's no way to know if the healthy-eating-as-an-act-of-defiance mentality lasted long enough to truly change their eating habits.
I wondered, though, what else can work to motivate kids to eat healthy outside of regular education or a constant barrage of lectures at home? I took to Facebook to ask my friends what outside influences get their kids to eat healthier. Here's what they said:
- "Nutrition lessons from her dance schools and reading about nutrition for dancers in dance magazines." (This girl recently decided to become a pescatarian — a vegetarian who eats fish — after reading how it benefited dancers.)
- "Sports coaches and phys-ed at school."
- "The 'Good Mythical Morning' show got my son to try new foods, but not necessarily 'healthy' foods."
- "I've found the most influential group of kids on kids are kids."
- "A family member's battle with eating disorders has sparked conversations about healthy eating/lifestyles."
- "My son eats healthy so he can be a better athlete. Googles everything to see what is good and what isn't, as far as protein content, sugar, fiber, etc."
- "The most influential thing for my daughter is her self awareness of how she feels when she eats good/bad."
- "Dance friends who eat healthy."
- "Sesame Street always rocked with healthy ideas!"
And one mom, who I know has a very healthy lifestyle that her kids see every day, had this to say, "I'd love to find someone/thing that my kids will listen about nutrition, because it's not me!"
It would be wonderful to tell her that there's a one-size-fits-all solution to getting kids to eat healthy, but there's not. It seems like you have to find out what an individual kid cares about — whether it's defying authority or performing well at sports or dance — and work from there.