Eating certain types of foods might help children grow healthier or stronger—but just don’t tell them.
That’s the result of a set of surveys conducted by Professor Ayelet Fishbach and Northwestern University’s Michal Maimaran. The researchers find that presenting certain foods as instrumental to achieving a goal, such as becoming healthier, stronger, or smarter, is a recipe for getting young children to eat less of them. The findings illuminate the psychology behind food choices starting at a very young age, and could be used to help fight childhood obesity.
Fishbach and Maimaran wondered if making children focus on food’s potential benefits would shift the kids’ attention away from enjoying the food’s taste.
To find out, they conducted an experiment with a preschool class of four- and five-year-olds. They divided the class into three groups, then read each a story in which a girl named Tara ate crackers before going outside to play. The first group’s story said the crackers made Tara feel “strong and healthy.” In the second group’s story, “the crackers were yummy.” The third story did not mention any benefits from eating crackers.
The researchers gave each child in the group a bowl containing 15 crackers. Children who’d been told that crackers had health benefits ate an average of 3.1 crackers in the next few minutes. Those told that crackers were delicious ate an average of 7.2 crackers. The children who weren’t told of any benefit ate an average of nine crackers apiece.
Did the children who ate fewer crackers think they were less tasty? In a second experiment, the researchers involved younger children, aged three and four. They divided the children into two groups: one was told crackers had health benefits; the other wasn’t told of a benefit. The children told of health benefits ate significantly fewer crackers—4.67 on average, compared to 10 crackers consumed on average by the control group. The children told of health benefits also reported disliking the taste more.
To rule out the possibility that the children were remembering previous experiences with healthy foods that hadn’t tasted good, Fishbach and Maimaran conducted three other experiments in which they suggested benefits that were unrelated to health.
In a third experiment, the researchers told a portion of four- and five-year-olds that carrots helped kids learn to read, while in a fourth study they told three- and four-year-olds that carrots helped kids learn to count. Once again, the preschoolers consumed significantly less food when told of a benefit other than taste.
In the fifth and final study, to also rule out the possibility that the reference to playtime could be impacting the children’s decision to consume less food, the researchers changed the stories so that a character ate crackers before doing a less fun activity such as going to sleep or to school. Yet again, the children consumed significantly less food when told that eating crackers would help them toward a goal, in this case learning to count.
Fishbach and Maimaran’s findings are instructive for policymakers trying to tackle rising childhood obesity rates in the United States, which hit nearly 18% in 2012 among six–11-year-olds, up from 7% in 1980, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The research suggests that encouraging children to eat healthy foods can backfire—but emphasizing taste, or not stressing any possible benefit, will do more to encourage consumption.
This lesson also applies to marketers and parents. It’s all well and good to market food as healthy, say the researchers, but the message will be more effective if it targets caregivers rather than the children themselves.