Parents can often be heard telling their children, “No candy today. It will rot your teeth.” According to a new study, that may be the wrong approach.
Researchers from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab recently analyzed 43 published studies on nutrition messages. They found that while negative messages work well with experts like dietitians and physicians, the average layperson was more likely to accept positive messages.
In other words, “focus on the broccoli benefits, rather than the hamburger harms,” study leaders said.
One problem with the negative messages commonly used in public campaigns is that the average person isn’t an expert in nutrition and doesn’t receive all the information they need from the messages alone, according to the study.
“Negative messaging comes naturally to many of us, probably because we are constantly surrounded by it ourselves,” says Sheana Brighton, dietitian on staff at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill. “ ‘Trans fats are bad for you. Carbs are bad. Sugar is bad. Red meat is bad.’ But what those messages are lacking is guidance. I know too much sugar is bad for me, but what should I eat instead?”
Negative messages are also based in fear, often warning against bad outcomes, like obesity or heart disease. However, people may not understand how serious those consequences can be so the messages are not effective, researchers said.
Brighton says this may be especially true of children.
“Food and diet are the cornerstones of good health, so instilling healthy eating habits in children from an early age is incredibly important,” she says. “Research can give parents guidance on how to navigate conversations about food with their children.”
Brighton suggests these tips for helping children develop healthy food habits:
- Focus on the benefits of smart food choices. Remind them that eating a healthy meal will give them energy. Or that protein will help them build strong muscles.
- Encourage diversity on their plates. Teach them about the food rainbow and make a game of it, challenging them to eat as many different color foods as they can. It’s a sneaky way to get a wide variety of nutrients into their diet.
- Involve children in menu planning, when possible. Provide them with a couple of healthy options to choose and help them feel some ownership over their meals.