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Can Children Be Manipulated into Eating Their Veggies?

How come French children don't need to be experimented upon by psychologists to get them to eat well?

by
Theodore Dalrymple

Bio

February 20, 2012 - 12:00 am

All flesh used to be grass, but nowadays quite a lot of it is fast food. Although the rate of obesity among American children did not increase between the years 2007-8 and 2009-10, according to a survey recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it is still alarmingly high at one in six. American children do not any more go to school hungry: they go to school fat.

Can anything be done about it and, if so, whose responsibility is it to do it? The U.S. government believes that children do not eat enough vegetables; it might very well be right, of course, but I suspect that the founding fathers might have been surprised that it had any opinions on the subject.

Researchers in Minnesota, also reporting in JAMA, attempted to encourage (or inveigle) children from kindergarten to fifth grade into eating more vegetables at lunch. As far as I can see, the ethics of the attempt did not bother them: the desirable end justified the mildly manipulative means.

They took the lunch trays of the children, predominantly from disadvantaged homes, and put photographs of carrots and green beans in the bottom of two of the compartments. The theory, or hope, of the researchers was that the children would conclude either that other children ate vegetables, or that that were expected to do so, or both.

The researchers measured how many carrots and beans the children took and ate, comparing days when the photographs appeared in their lunch trays with those on which they did not. The children were free to choose, and the researchers were careful not to confuse choice with consumption. They assiduously measured how much vegetable matter the children actually ate, going as far as to weigh the beans and carrots to be found on the floor or left on the trays.

Whether the results were encouraging, discouraging, or neither depends upon your point of view. The proportion of children who chose green beans rose from 6.3 to 14.8 percent; the figures for carrots were 11.6 and 36.8 percent. The actual consumption rose accordingly: but whether the effect would be a lasting one was not a question that the research so far done could answer. There is always room for more research, and sometimes the cynical thought comes into one’s mind that the main purpose of research is to quote precisely that room.

I found the research mildly disconcerting. Moreover, the heart of the problem — the poor diet of many American children — is for me symbolized in the researcher’s use of the word “student” for children of kindergarten age and for those only a year or two older. Kindergarten children and pupils are not students: they grow into studenthood with age, as their studies become more self-chosen and self-directed. At first, they need a lot of direction.

What applies to study applies to food: for if children are given the choice too early of what to eat, they will forever eat what is childish. French children are not given the choice, and therefore quickly develop a more mature taste, and are less fat. They do not need to be experimented upon by psychologists and others to get them to eat well.

Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His new book is Second Opinion: A Doctor's Notes from the Inner City.
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