Autonomy, peer relationships, and parental conflict — these are the universal themes that made the popular 1990s comic Zits identifiable for anyone who has, or has been, a teenager. In one strip, hands in pockets and making a sullen sideways glance, Jeremy slouches next to his father. His t-shirt reads, “question authority.” Next to him, his equally chagrined father sports the t-shirt: “do not question my authority.” While his parents work to steer the 16-year-old in the right direction on his path to adulthood, Jeremy is equally determined to forge his own way. For the most part, their suggestions, pleas, and cajoles, don’t make it past his headphones.

Figuring out how to effectively appeal to adolescents was the first challenge facing researchers in a fascinating new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their goal was to induce teens to change one critically important behavior — food choice — in a completely novel way. The researchers set-up a scenario where healthy eating itself became an avenue for fighting authority. While such a unique value-based intervention also has the potential to be applicable to other groups and values, it’s hard to find a better place to start in today’s society than healthy eating.  

One of the major initiatives developed and championed by outgoing First Lady Michelle Obama was aimed at reducing childhood obesity. Because, despite the consequences — heart disease, stroke, diabetesabout one in three American adults and nearly one in five children are obese. Carrying extra weight is harmful to individuals and also costly to society. But changing eating habits, one factor in being overweight, is just plain hard. It is not enough to know the consequences of eating junk food: In movie theaters, on best-seller lists and billboards, the warnings are all around us. Yet, even widespread public health messages and access to kitchen gardens, like on the South Lawn of the White House, have not yet curbed rising obesity levels.

Preventing obesity is better than treating it later in life, so it makes sense to focus efforts on supporting children’s and teens healthy eating habits. Understanding how to get through to teens, like Jeremy, was the goal of Christopher Bryan and colleagues. They recruited more than 500 8th graders over two consecutive years for their study. (The study was “double-blind”; neither the students nor teachers knew the details of the experiment, and the researchers at the school also didn’t know the details of the different conditions.) Students were randomly assigned to either a treatment condition or to one of two different control groups. Students in one control group either received no materials at all or materials completely unrelated to health or food. In the other control group, students were given the typical type of public health message: why it is important to eat healthily, what foods to avoid, how to read nutrition labels, etc.

Students in the treatment group were presented with something totally different: an authority to fight back against. The food industry, they were told, formulates snacks to be addictive, then creates the illusion of healthfulness, and finally targets advertising towards children and other disadvantaged populations. The corporate executives behind the scenes, middle-aged men (pictured in suits), themselves wouldn’t even want to eat the snacks they promote. The idea was to have students see rejecting junk food as a way to assert their autonomy and fight for social justice. Their materials also included quotes from older peers, unhappy with the unjust industry, and the students were asked to write out their own plans for fighting back.

To test the influence of the different conditions, all students completed a short survey to measure their 1) alignment of healthy eating with their values, 2) perception of the social status appeal of healthy eating, and 3) emotional response to food advertisements. But, the big test came the day after the food lessons: Coke vs. water; Oreos vs. baby carrots. Students were presented with a special snack event and given the choice of one drink and two snacks from a mix of healthy and unhealthy. The school principal announced the snack treat weeks earlier, posed as a reward for completing a state-wide testing period, to avoid students connecting it with the study.

The teens given the new kind of messages acted on their newfound convictions, choosing more healthy snacks and drinks than the other groups of students. Their survey responses also reflected a change in their attitudes; there was an increase in how they saw healthy eating as matching with these values, as well as its social status appeal. So, the treatment message worked both in theory and practice.

These are exciting results for everyone. We all want to be liked by our peers and act on our values. The potential to harness values to change choices extends beyond teens. The authors share the example of perhaps framing healthy eating as a parenting value for people with kids. Of course, skipping the Cheetos in favor of an apple is only one component in America’s weight problem. Other factors like exercise and portion size also play a role. But, maybe the next time you reach for a snack, try channeling one of those rebellious teens.