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Do children reject food because they know it is good for them?

21 May 14

The challenge of convincing children to eat healthily is a familiar one for many parents. However, new research conducted at the University of Chicago and led by Professor Ayelet Fishbachof (see pre-print of the paper here) suggests that the common parental technique of extolling the nutritional virtues of foodstuffs may not be the best approach. In fact, children may reject a healthy food simply because they know it is good for them; once given that information, they assume the food won't taste good.

The researchers proposed that young children infer from messages on food instrumentality that if a food contributes towards one goal - being healthy, for example - then it cannot also be a good means to achieve a different goal, such as tasting good. Therefore, if food is presented to children as making them strong, or as instrumental to a non-health goal such as knowing how to read, the children will conclude the food is not also tasty. They will consume less of a food presented to them in this way, compared to when it is only described as tasty, or comes with no accompanying message.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers completed five experiments with 270 pre-schoolers in which an experimenter read picture stories about a girl who consumed some food as a snack. In some stories, she was interested in the food because it was good for her; in others, because the food was tasty; with the final set of stories presenting no reason for her interest in the food. After hearing the stories, the children were presented with the option of eating some of the food from the story. In each case, children ate more of it when no reason for doing so had been mentioned, or when it had been presented as "yummy", than they did when they thought the food was good for them.

With increasing rates of childhood obesity, understanding how to help children eat healthier is crucial, especially from a young age. It is hoped that this and similar research may prove useful when developing strategies to achieve this goal. [ScienceDaily]

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