The study showed that a new intervention causes school children cut down on unhealthy snacking.
Psychologists have successfully tested a new strategy encouraging schoolchildren to consume fewer unhealthy snacks.
Researchers from Staffordshire University discovered that secondary school students often overestimate the amount of unhealthy snacking among their friends, which increases their likelihood of consuming unhealthy snacks themselves.
Sian Calvert, who led the research across a series of studies, said: “In focus groups with 11 to 13-year-olds conducted prior to the intervention, we found they knew what healthy dietary behaviors were, and the short-term and long-term effects, but didn’t always practice these behaviors.
“Students were regularly eating unhealthy snacks which seemingly influenced their regular meal consumption – they were skipping meals because of the snacking. The focus group discussions also indicated that in this age group peers were an important influence on their dietary behaviors.”
The regular consumption of unhealthy snacks, according to Public Health England, increases the chance of long-term ill health in teenagers by making them overweight or obese.
According to NHS statistics, children who live in the most deprived parts of the United Kingdom are twice as likely to be overweight or obese as children who live in areas with high socioeconomic levels.
Sian and colleagues created a school-based intervention utilizing the Social Norms Approach (SNA), a method that corrects misperceptions about other people’s behavior, to help address this problem.
The study was conducted with Staffordshire University colleagues, Dr. Rachel Povey, Associate Professor of Health Psychology, and Emeritus Professor David Clark-Carter alongside Dr. Rob Dempsey from Manchester Metropolitan University.
Dr. Rachel Povey explained: “Adolescence is an important time for rapid growth and development, but it is also when children gain more control over their own diet and often establish unhealthy eating habits. At secondary school, students might stop at a shop on the walk to school, or buy snacks on their way home, so they have access to a wider range of food.”
The study involved more than 150 Year 7 pupils, aged 11-12 years old, from two schools located in Greater Manchester and Staffordshire.
Both schools received healthy eating information, while students in the SNA intervention also received feedback correcting their misperceptions of peers’ snacking behavior. This was presented through an interactive poster-making session as suggested by an advisory panel of slightly older Year 8 students.
Following the intervention, participants in the SNA intervention consumed significantly fewer unhealthy snacks, had more accurate perceptions about other students’ behaviors, and had more negative attitudes toward unhealthy snacking.
Sian said: “Our results are important, as it is recommended that adolescents eat a healthy balanced diet, only eat unhealthy snack foods occasionally, and in small amounts, to support normal development and to reduce the likelihood of long-term ill-health.
“This study indicates that the Social Norms Approach is a feasible strategy to use in schools to promote healthy eating behaviors at an impressionable age and could be used in future, which is really promising.”
Reference: “An in-school social norms approach intervention for reducing unhealthy snacking behaviours amongst 11–12-year-olds” by Sian M. Calvert, Robert C. Dempsey, Rachel Povey and David Clark-Carter, 26 January 2022, British Journal of Health Psychology.