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Don't tell children that veggies are good for them says new study

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Have you ever wondered why when children hear about the benefits of healthy food, they're less likely to eat it? Researchers say kids don't want to hear how useful any given food is, when useful actually means good for you and healthy. Trying to get kids to eat healthier? Don't tell them veggies are good for them, says a new study, "If It's Useful and You Know It, Do You Eat? Preschoolers Refrain from Instrumental Food," recently appearing online in the Journal of Consumer Research (University of Chicago Press Journals). The study is scheduled to be published in print October 2014. Authors are Michal Maimaran and Ayelet Fishbach.

At some point, most kids will hear that drinking milk helps make their bones strong or that fish is food for the brain. But do these messages foster the idea that if something is good for us, it must surely taste bad? According to the new study, when children hear about the benefits of healthy food, they're less likely to eat it.

But what if you told the child the food is healthy from the time the child was born, relentlessly, totally, and every member of the family and/or friends at the dinner table also repeated the same advice, that vegetables are healthy? On the other hand, the new research says not to tell children that vegetables are good for them. Yet that's the main plot of some children's books where the protagonist is a vegetable the kid can identify with as a hero good person, or superhero.

When children hear about the benefits of healthy food, they're less likely to eat it

"We predicted that when food is presented to children as making them strong or as a tool to achieve a goal such as learning how to read or count, they would conclude the food is not as tasty and therefore consume less of it," write authors Michal Maimaran (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago Booth School of Business). Some advertisements for various types of food even appear with a slogan referring to the food in the ad as tasting so good, you can't believe it's healthy. Why are people so scared of eating food that's healthy? Do they believe healthy food can't taste good?

To test this idea, the authors conducted five studies with children between the ages of three and five. In all of the studies, the children were read a picture book story about a girl who ate a snack of crackers or carrots. Depending on the experiment, the story either did or did not state the benefits of the snack (making the girl strong or helping her learn how to count). The children were then given the opportunity to eat the food featured in the story and the authors measured how much they ate. The children ate more when they did not receive any message about the foods making them strong or helping them learn how to count.

Brands marketing food items to parents and children can use these results to de-emphasize the benefits of healthy food and focus more on the positive experience of eating the food. These results also help to empower policy makers and medical institutions looking to combat childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes.

"Parents and caregivers who are struggling to get children to eat healthier may be better off simply serving the food without saying anything about it, or (if credible) emphasizing how yummy the food actually is," the authors conclude, according to the July 22, 2014 news release, "Trying to get kids to eat healthier? Don't tell them veggies are good for them." Another noteworthy work you may wish to read is, "You Eat Unhealthy Food Today by Selectively Misremembering the Unhealthy Food You Ate Yesterday."


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