Children think their peers eat more unhealthy snacks than they actually do – changing that perception could lead to a better diet

Obesity is a growing problem among young people in the UK. In 2020-2021, 40.9% of 6 year olds (ages 10-11) were measured as overweight or obese. Research shows that childhood obesity increases the likelihood of living with obesity as an adult.

Frequently snacking on foods high in fat, salt, and sugar, such as potato chips and chocolate bars, may be one factor contributing to higher rates of obesity. The UK government recommends that snacks like these should be eaten infrequently and in small amounts as part of a healthy diet.

But when we surveyed 252 11- and 12-year-old students at two English high schools to understand perceived social norms for snacking on foods high in fat, salt, and sugar, we found that students often overestimated how much other students ate this type of snack. . We’ve also found that what their peers do seems to significantly influence how young adults eat.

We used these findings to find a way to reduce snacking among children, by telling them this misconception.

Snack habits

A 2019 study found that teens classified as overweight or obese ate more snacks that were high in salt, fat, and sugar per day than those of normal weight.

Our research began with an attempt to understand what influences young people’s diet through focus group discussions. We found that young adults between the ages of 11 and 12 perceive fellow students as strong influencers on what they should eat, and can be upset about eating more healthily.

We then focused on addressing misconceptions of social norms as a way to change snacking behavior in young adults. Perceived social norms are the unwritten rules or expectations that guide what we personally think or do based on what we think most other people think or do.

Challenging misconceptions

The social norms-based approach works by correcting these misconceptions between perceived and actual behaviour. Our research group has used this approach to address other health behavior, such as attitudes toward vaccine uptake and understanding college students’ use of alcohol and other drugs. No studies have yet used this approach to understand snacking behavior in students starting high school.

According to UK government advice, snacks high in salt, fat and sugar are rarely eaten.
Syda Productions / Shutterstock

We found that students aged 11 to 12 years overestimated the number of snacks high in salt, fat, or sugar their peers ate by 3.2 servings of snacks per day. Then we developed a campaign, in a school, to challenge these assumptions.

Students designed posters to display in their school. This information, distinct from the survey data we collected, shows that students are consuming fewer snacks than commonly thought. We developed the campaign with students and teachers. Based on their suggestions, we ran a competition where students voted for the best posters that will be displayed throughout the school.

We found that 163 students who participated in the campaign were less likely to overestimate their peers’ attitudes toward snacking, compared to students at another school who made up a control group. After three months, students at the school where we campaigned ate fewer snacks high in fat, salt, and sugar, and had less positive attitudes about snacking on these foods, compared to the control group.

Understanding beliefs about social norms, as well as engaging young people in addressing misconceptions, can provide one way to help address the growing problem of obesity in children and adolescents.

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