Want college students to eat better? Try appealing to their sense of the greater good


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When the direct approach to changing unhealthful behavior doesn’t work, maybe it’s time to try something more...stealth.

That’s the tactic researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine took to get college students to adopt better eating habits as part of a study. A stealth intervention works like this: Rather than tell people to eat right and exercise because it’s good for them (which, as we all know, is rarely effective), another motivation is suggested. For example, people might be persuaded to eat locally grown fruits and vegetables since they don’t have to be transported like meats and processed foods. Ergo, the environment benefits. The motivation to eat better is still intrinsic, making more healthful behaviors an ancillary benefit.


The study involved 28 undergraduate college students who took a course called Food and Society, in which the curriculum focused on food-centric social and environmental issues, not on health or nutrition. Students read books such as ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ ‘Fast Food Nation’ and ‘The Ethics of What We Eat,’ in addition to watching documentaries that included ‘Super Size Me.’ The students also wrote and submitted an opinion piece and produced a video for YouTube supporting a behavior change linked to a social issue involving food. Another group of 72 students took health-related human biology classes focused on health psychology, obesity and community health.

All students completed a questionnaire at the beginning and end of the study that asked how many fruits, vegetables, dairy products and other foods they ate.

At the end of the quarter, students in the Food and Society course were eating more vegetables and fewer high-fat dairy products, fatty meats and sweets. Those in the other classes showed no progress in their eating habits, and were actually eating fewer vegetables by the end.

The researchers acknowledge that students weren’t randomly assigned to the various classes (they elected to take them), so those in the Food and Society class may have been more inclined to alter their eating patterns. However, the study authors believe that short-term interventions such as these could result in long-term changes, and other health-related stealth interventions could be tailored to meet various needs and preferences.

The study appears in the May issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

-- Jeannine Stein