Editor’s Note: Cintia Hintojosa is a researcher at the University of Chicago, who was part of the research team in a recent study that asked: What can be done to reduce unhealthy eating among adolescents? Here, in a guest post for the Ideabook blog, she explains their groundbreaking findings—and how to apply this new approach to health education in your classroom. 


Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled since 1980, and despite countless school-based health interventions, effective solutions still elude experts. Why? One reason might be because traditional school health messages often rely on self-interest and future goals as motivators, but teens are more concerned about what’s happening in the here and now. As adolescents, they’re wired to want to feel like a socially conscious, autonomous person worthy of approval from one’s peers. So we—a team of psychologists from the University of Chicago and the University of Texas—decided to test a new approach: harnessing teens’natural rebelliousness to motivate healthy eating.


Many adults know that food companies target kids and try to get them hooked from a young age. For instance, they engineer snacks to be addictive by increasing sugar and salt content, they create cartoons that draw kids to junk, and they use labeling to make foods appear healthier than they really are. Bottom line: Big Food is, in many ways, the new Big Tobacco. [Editor’s Note: Read all about it in our feature, The Sinister Science of Irresistible Junk Food.]


Our research team conducted a randomized experiment in which we simply told eighth-graders facts like these, then asked the teenagers to reflect on them:

  • If you want to be controlled by rich company executives who make money getting children addicted to soda and junk food, then go ahead and eat those foods.
  • If you want to make your own decisions and fight back against injustice and hypocrisy, then drink water or eat healthier food.


It’s the latter message that resonated with teens, and the results of the study—published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this fall—were striking: The group who got the new treatment showed a 9 percent reduction in junk food calories when the principal offered them a choice between junk food or healthy food the next day. What’s more: A group that got traditional health educational materials, like diagrams from a textbook, looked no different from a group that got no nutritional information. Simply put, the traditional approach to nutrition education did nothing.


Cleary, teens do not want to be manipulated, and as educators, you have the power to utilize this desire to teach healthy decision-making. Here are three tips that can help bring this student-centered approach into your classrooms:


  • TIP 1: Emphasize respect for students’ autonomy. The standard methods of promoting school health— the all-school assembly, the health class lessons -- can feel to teens like adults are telling them how to make their personal choices. The more adults try, the more teens want to do the opposite. Teens need to feel respected and admired, especially when it comes to sensitive topics like how they should make personal decisions.


  • TIP 2: Provide a purpose that speaks to students. Living in line with values like making the world a better place helps students feel motivated to be better and try harder. Just explaining basic health information to them, much of which they already know, doesn't. This approach isn’t limited to health; incorporating a purpose for learning that students naturally value can be applied to other classroom topics too. As a society, we should give teens the information they need, but in a way that lets them feel like the kind of person who wants to put it into action.


  • TIP 3: Encourage a critical eye for negative influences. Big Food and Soda marketing campaigns are more pervasive than ever. Children and teens are exposed to advertising on billboards, television, websites, games, and phone apps. We can turn the tables by using these advertisements as an opportunity to remind students of the real message behind the ads. Have your students ask critical thinking questions about the ads they see: What are they trying to sell? Who is the audience? Are they using cartoon characters or celebrities? Do you think what they are saying is true?


For more information on how Big Food and Big Soda companies target kids and what parents and educators can do to counteract it, see: