What would Batman eat? Priming children to make healthier fast food choices

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A boy in a homemade superhero costume,
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Cornell study shows that children can be primed to order healthier fast food items merely by thinking about what their favorite superhero would eat.

Would you like a fun way to convince children to eat more healthy foods? Ask them what they feel their favorite super-hero would eat! Despite the fact that even fast food restaurants are offering more and more healthy choice options for kids, children just aren’t asking for them when it comes time to order. Recently Dr. Brian Wansink, Dr. Mitsuru Shimizu from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and Guido Camps a Master Student from University or Utrecht (The Netherlands) visiting the Lab decided to try to a new tactic to encourage kids to think about apple slices instead of French fries.

In the recently published study conducted with 22 children at a summer camp as participants, the researchers gave them the choice of either French fries or apple fries (thinly sliced apples) from a popular fast food restaurant. Children’s age ranged from 6 to 12 years. The study took place over the course of four weeks, and on the first and fourth weeks, which served as control weeks with no priming, only two of the children (9.1%) ordered the apples.

Weeks three and four the scientists mixed it up. First, they chose 12 photos of real or fictional role models whom a separate study had either deemed admirable or not-admirable. Before they asked the children what they wanted for lunch, each child was randomly shown each of the 12 photos and asked, “Would this person order apple fries or French fries?” The children’s responses were recorded with the hypothesis that children who thought admirable models would eat healthily would activate positive associations towards healthy food and become more likely to choose apple fries over French fries. The researchers were right! When encouraged with the right prompting, children can make the right decision. On the week each child was primed with photos of the models, 10 children, or 45.5%, selected apple fries. This effect was more pronounced among children who thought admirable models would always eat healthy food than those who did not. That means that by showing children photos of role models and helping them to think about the connection of eating healthy and being an admirable adult, 8 more children (36.4% more) made the healthy choice for lunch!

Why is this important? Because on average, children who selected apple fries consumed only 34 calories whereas children that selected French fries consumed 227 calories. That’s almost 7 times as many calories just from the side dish of the meal! If you eat fast food once a week, a small switch from French fries to apple fried could save your children almost 3 pounds of weight a year!

So, the next time you take your children to a fast food restaurant remember to ask them, “What would Batman eat?”

Source: Cornell University

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Date Created: June 28, 2012 Date Modified: December 20, 2012