Carrot Stick It to the Man: Framing Healthy Eating as Rebellion

Punk music, angsty bangs, hating your parents and, now, eating a kale salad?

Angsty Teens

Teens’ natural inclination to rebel can be harnessed into healthy eating and maintaining a healthier weight, a new study by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found.

How? Researcher Christopher J. Bryan and his team first taught groups of eighth graders about shady practices of the “big food” industry — factory farming, engineering junk food to be more addictive, purposefully marketing cheap, highly processed snacks to the poor and the very young. Basically, the “Food, Inc.” curriculum.

“Our goal here was to portray healthy eating as a way to take a stand against injustice — to stand up for vulnerable people who lack the ability to protect themselves,” Bryan said in a news release about the study. “First, our healthy eating message was framed as an exposé of manipulative food industry marketing practices that influence and deceive adolescents and others into eating larger quantities of unhealthy foods.

“We framed healthy eating as a way to ‘stick it to the man’ — 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.”

If you did a stint as a rebellious teen, it all sounds a bit manipulative. But Bryan found that the method worked. When snack time came, the teens began to choose fresh fruits and veggies and nuts over junk food and water over sugary soda. The kids being studied were unaware that their snack choices were being tracked. (Very sneaky!)

Kid Water

At the end of the study, the research team found that the eighth graders chose fruit, carrots and nuts as a snack 11 percent more than they did before the lesson on food industry practices. They chose water over soda 7 percent more than they did before.

Blown up on a bigger scale, this research could have important impacts on teen health — and adult health, as childhood weight is a strong predictor of weight in adulthood, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Bryan believes that a sustained 7 percent reduction in carb intake over time would correspond to one pound of body fat lost or not gained every six weeks for adolescent boys and eight weeks for adolescent girls. Capitalizing on teenagers’ rebellious streaks to keep them at a healthy weight early in life could be an important key to getting all Americans healthier.

It’s easy to imagine school districts incorporating this method — without much or any cost — into health class curricula, or seeing posters about food justice in your local middle school’s hallways. But because policy change is slow, it might be best to start trying this at home with your own kids if you have them — or yourself, for that matter. It’s never too late to start sticking it to the man.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for the daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she edits and writes the articles that appear on Rewire, and works with its pool of freelance journalists. She has also written episodes of PBS Digital Studios series “Sound Field” and “America From Scratch.” She’s the host of the history webseries “30-Second Minnesota,” which was nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.