Healthy role models influence teenagers’ eating habits

It’s a common view that adolescents don’t want to listen to their parents, but reality is different – at least when it comes to healthy living. New research from Aarhus BSS (School of Business and Social Sciences at Aarhus University) shows that parents are significant role models for their teenaged children in terms of prompting them to eat fruit and vegetables.

2015.08.07 | Julia Rolsted Stacey

Susanne Pedersen, a postdoc and a mother of three, just handed in her PhD thesis at the Department of Management at Aarhus BSS. Her thesis is based on a research project that aimed to induce children and adolescents to eat sufficient amounts of fruit and vegetables, and she was surprised by her own findings.

“I think both as a researcher and a mother I was a little taken aback by how important it is for parents to lead the way and show their children how it’s done, even after they enter their teens. You can’t just leave them to their own devices and think they’ll figure it out for themselves. You have to act as a role model and you have to constantly remind them why they have to eat healthy food, which, of course, requires that the parents know the answer themselves,” she said.

Common dilemma

It’s a common dilemma: You are perfectly aware of the importance of maintaining a healthy diet, but you don’t practice it yourself. Susanne Pedersen’s PhD project, based on research covering 1,500 Danish children and adolescents as well as their parents, has given way to tangible recommendations on how to tear down the barrier between how people ought to behave and how they actually do behave.

”My PhD project shows how important it is to actually make healthy food available at home. If you don’t prepare a fruit basket, or if you don’t cut up the carrots and cucumbers into small, munchable pieces, well, then the children won’t eat it. They won’t do these things by themselves. Once again, the parents have to show the way,” she said.

She considers her research to be extremely important. Obesity among children and adolescents is one of the main public health problems in Denmark and elsewhere in the west, and there is an urgent need for solutions. Official Danish health statistics show that between 11 and 12 per cent of Danish preschool children are obese, rising to more than 17 per cent once they reach upper secondary school.

”Unless the children and their parents change their behaviour, it’s going to become an even bigger problem. It’s an added burden not just on the families, but the entire health system. In my opinion, if by adopting modest means we can do something about it, it’s very worthwhile,” she said.

Using SMS

Modest means include SMS. At an early stage in her research, Susanne Pedersen discovered that technology offers the most direct road towards getting children and adolescents involved. On a more practical level, what this meant was this: Each day, the young participants in her research project had to send an SMS detailing the amount of fruit and vegetables they had consumed. Subsequently, they received feedback explaining how much more they needed to eat in order to meet their target for the week.

”For example, they would be sitting on Monday night, sending me an SMS stating they had eaten three units of fruit and two units of vegetables, and then they would receive an SMS back saying that in order to reach your target, you must eat this amount by late Sunday. It’s much easier for them to handle if you divide it into smaller bits like this,” she said.

Leave no one behind

Overall, the findings of Susanne Pedersen’s research were very encouraging, but at the same time she also came across children and adolescents who realised that getting into the habit of eating healthy food was actually harder than they thought. It could be relevant, as part of a future research venture, to find out how to make sure this segment is not left behind.

”As part of the research project, we also measured the participants’ confidence in their own abilities, and some of them actually ended up believing less in their own ability to eat more fruit and vegetables. Perhaps some were discouraged. I believe this is an important lesson: How do we prevent this from happening the next time around? If people don’t want to maintain a healthy diet, of course you can’t force them. So you have to look more closely at what motivates people and make sure to keep them motivated, also in the long run,” she said.

Further information

Susanne Pedersen

Susanne Pedersen
MAPP, Department of Management
Aarhus BSS
Aarhus University
Phone: +45 8715 2417 & +45 2993 3928

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