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Using psychology to entice students to eat healthier


Health care providers, educators and parents agree that school meal programs need to be more nutritious. But once the lunch line is revamped to include healthier food choices, how do you get students to choose carrot sticks instead of chips?

To answer that question, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a new initiative yesterday and awarded $2 million in grants for researchers to develop methods for schools to better support healthy-eating habits. The grants will establish Cornell University's Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs and fund projects to test the effectiveness of select behavioral economics-based strategies in improving students' food choices. According to a release:

Research has shown that good intentions may not be enough: when choosing what or how much to eat, we may be unconsciously influenced by how offers are framed, by various incentives, and by such factors as visual cues.

The emerging field of behavioral economics draws on research from the fields of economics and social psychology to better understand behavior. This research can suggest practical, cost-effective ways that the school environment can better support healthful choices. For example, students may value the present over the future, making it hard to turn down today's tasty treat for the sake of long-term health. But research suggests we can support good intentions via the use of a pre-paid card that only allows students to purchase healthy options from the school cafeteria.

In related work, a recent Stanford study showed that raising young adults' awareness of the connection between food and environmental and social issues can persuade them to eat more veggies and less ice cream.

Previously: Study shows federal school lunch program doesn’t make the grade, Should kids get cupcakes at school?, Persuading kids to make healthier choices in the lunchroom and School nutrition standards come into the 21st century
Photo by DC Central Kitchen

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