The myths about children's dietary choices

New research exposes the untruths about how dietary choices are made

Peter Stratton

The research described in this article uses attributional analysis techniques to examine some myths about family food choices and healthy diets. The findings indicate that there is a real risk that people are being led to focus their efforts on the wrong things, and made to feel guilty for perfectly reasonable and positive behaviour about diet. Advertising can make a significant contribution to help families have enjoyable, varied and healthy food patterns, but to do so it needs to be free from some of the myths that have grown up about healthy diets.

THE ADVERTISING industry is currently one of the participants in the debate about children's diets, family diets, and the effects of television advertising on these. The debate could have a substantial impact on what children eat, so any misconceptions or simple lack of information have the potential to damage the health and welfare of children.

The research reported in this article was commissioned by the Advertising Association in order to provide some solid information on these issues. Details of the sample, the method and full results are available from the Advertising Association or the author.

We have found that many of the pronouncements about children's diets common in the debate were being made on the basis of a set of beliefs. We see these beliefs as unfounded, and came to describe them as myths. The research project provides empirical evidence about each of these myths, and in reporting on each myth I indicate why, if it is not true, it could actually be damaging. At the end of the paper I will use impressions gained from all of our food-related research to pose and challenge five further myths.

The research indicates that there is a real risk that families are being led to focus their efforts on the wrong things, while being undermined and made to feel guilty for perfectly reasonable and positive treatment of their children. I also feel that the advertising and food industries are sometimes too ready to take on these myths. Let me offer a (slightly disguised) example.

A recent omnibus survey included the question: 'Have you ever bought a food for your child because he or she asked you to?' 94 per cent of parents answered 'yes'. Apart from thinking what miserable so-and-so's the other six per cent must be, I was struck by the fact that this item was press released by the company concerned as '94 per cent of parents admit to succumbing to pester power'. This is perhaps an extreme example of the industry creating 'bogeys' around issues of children and food.

WHY ATTRIBUTIONAL ANALYSIS?

Given the objectives, and the surrounding context of the research, we needed a methodology that would provide a very thorough insight into how families go about the various processes which result in the child's diet. The method of interviewing is based on techniques we have developed over the last 15 years in the Family Therapy and Research clinic that I run in Leeds University. Because the interpretation we make of our data depends very heavily on the quality and form of information generated in the interviews, it is important to recognise that this is a powerful set of techniques, aimed to get to the core of people's belief structures through their accounts of real events.

Once interviews have been recorded, they are processed through an attributional analysis. Again, the method is detailed and complex and I cannot describe it here, but the basis is to identify explanations (cause-effect statements). Over 7,000 were generated in this piece of research. Each one was coded both for its content and for fundamental characteristics derived from attribution theory. The technique enables us to estimate the significance of different influences, as perceived by the respondents. The research methodology has been subjected to exhaustive reliability and validity testing.

THE STUDY

The fieldwork was carried out in four locations: London, Nottingham, Leeds and Glasgow, during Autumn 1993. Since children's diet is likely to be decided within the family system, we considered it necessary to interview the family as an interactive system and to explore how beliefs operate within this framework. Altogether, we interviewed 24 complete families and 59 mothers in group discussions. With most families (where the children were old enough) we used a procedure in which each family member was interviewed individually before the whole family was interviewed together.

THE FINDINGS

The findings are structured in terms of six myths.

Myth 1

Myth: Parents see themselves as gatekeepers, battling to keep out foods they consider healthy for their children.

Consequences: This belief could lead to attempts to help parents to exclude certain dietary items. If such help is neither wanted nor needed it could work to restrict children's diets, and deprive them of foods they enjoy, while pressurising their parents.

Research findings: Families are much more focused on whether the children will eat what is provided than on whether they are providing a nutritionally balanced diet.

The practicalities around the provision of food are a predominant factor in family dietary decisions. More than half of the family priorities are around the issue of whether what is provided is acceptable to the family: that is, whether it is enjoyable and/or will be eaten. Perhaps most surprisingly, only seven per cent of priorities expressed by the families were around nutrition and health (see Exhibit 1).

EXHIBIT 1. FAMILY DIETARY PRIORITIES

Proportions of attributions based on broad definitions of dietary priorities
Plan/buy/prepare/cook37%
Will eat/not eat36%
Enjoyable/not enjoyable15%
Nutrition/health7%
Base: 6826

It may help to get a feel for our data if we look at a few statements on this issue:

  • 'we eat more veg to try and feed Blair properly'
  • 'vegetarian pizza's got vegetables in it so it's better for you'
  • 'we give them cod liver oil tablets at night so we think they have got their vitamins'
  • 'because she's such a poor eater I try to get her to have fruit juice'
  • 'she won't eat vegetables. I gave her vitamins every morning'
  • 'because I don't think they do him much good I won't, say, buy sugar-coated cereal'
  • 'because I don't like cooking with fat we have oven chips'

Myth 2

Myth: Families see advertising as distorting the pattern of their children's eating.

Consequences: This belief could give rise to the idea that banning food advertising to children would have a beneficial effect on their diets. If incorrect, it would distract attention from those efforts that really are needed in order to improve children's diets. It could also fuel a generally negative attitude to advertising.

Research findings: Although families perceive advertising, especially TV advertising, as primarily orientated towards sweet snacks, even when considering specifically snacks, it is family members who are the dominant deciders. Family members themselves, by far the largest influence on food choices, see themselves as more powerful than advertising in driving choice around snacks, confectionery and drinks. Furthermore, family members are just as concerned with choices of fruit and vegetables.

Families do see advertising as concentrating particularly on sweet snacks and drinks, but its overall influence is minor compared with other sources, both in absolute terms and compared with other sources of influence on snack and sweet consumption. To quantify the extent to which external sources are influential compared with influences within the family, Exhibit 2 coalesces the major influences.

EXHIBIT 2. MAJOR INFLUENCES ON FAMILY FOOD CHOICES

Proportionate emphasis by families on influences on their food choices
%
Mum20
The children13
Dad12
Oldest child12
The family7
Friends6
Younger children6
Time of meal5
TV advertising5
Convenience4
Price4
On pack3
Shelf/checkout3
Base: 3004

Myth 3

Myth: Parents feel powerless to control their children's nutrition. Consequences: Apart from creating a disparaging view of parents, this belief suggests that whatever children decide to eat will be bought for them. This would be seriously misleading both to the industry and to outside bodies. Advertisers would become over-excited, and legislators would try to take over from parents the job of influencing what children eat.

Research findings: Parents do see themselves as having a high level of control around nutrition and health, though this must take into account that concern about nutrition is marginal (seven per cent of total); and that when it is referred to it is usually in the context of nutritional supplements which they can easily control, rather than in the context of the nutritive value of what is eaten every day.

The four broad issues or familial priorities on diet show that parents exert their control in the planning and buying, or provision, of food. They perceive themselves to have less control over whether the children will eat the food they have provided and, not surprisingly, even less control over whether they will enjoy it.

Myth 4

Myth: Parents believe television is the major influence on their children's diet.

Consequences: Improving the 'Health of the Nation' requires a concerted effort to improve the nation's diet. This effort could be seriously misdirected if resources are diverted in unhelpful directions. If parents are not asking for their children to be protected from television then we would be better finding out from them what they do think influences their children's diets, and respecting parents' understanding of their own children.

Research findings: Because of the limited number of sources of influence which operate for children, television advertising is seen as a rather more powerful influence on children's diet than on their parents'. Even so, its effect is absorbed into the wider and stronger patterns in which the family operates. So, taken in the context of the family, television advertising is only seven per cent of influences on children. Children are a major determinant of their own outcomes; parents are less of an influence, although mothers have a significant influence on their children's diet.

Exhibit 2 indicates that television advertising is among the minor influences on family food choices. It increases to seven per cent when considering children specifically, but it is also necessary to take into consideration that the influence of each family member may in turn have been influenced by television advertising. However, the extent to which this is true must be taken in the same context, that is, only seven per cent of each family member's ideas will have come from advertising, making a cumulative influence of 12.5 per cent.

Myth 5

Myth: Parents see children as continually pestering them for specific advertised foods.

Consequences: This myth would feed into a view that children should be prevented from having influence over their diets - a view that we believe to be profoundly mistaken. It would also give a very unrealistic idea of the interactions around food choice which are an important part of the life of ordinary families.

Research findings: What children ask for is a relatively small component of the family behaviours that influence choice. Parents are generally content to go along with the requests. They very rarely characterise their children's requests negatively, and as parents they see themselves as dominating the behaviours which are important for choice (planning/buying/preparing/cooking) rather than approval.

When we consider all of the child-related aspects of behaviour, these do add up to a significant influence. Developmental considerations such as age, resistance to eating and eating up, which predominantly relate to children, and other behaviours such as trying new food, in which children play a major part, make up a significant direct influence. They will also all be contributing to the decisions around buying and preparing food.

Specific foods are talked about and identified by brand, and in the relatively few cases in which choice of one product was associated with a reduction in use of another, it was almost invariably brands which were described, eg 'they don't like Safeway own brand cornflakes - it's got to be Kellogg's'. Category choices were simply not traded off against each other.

Myth 6

Myth: Parents worry that their children are only interested in junk food.

Consequences: The lesson one would take from this belief is that it is important to reduce children's interest in junk food. There is also an underlying assumption that what is junk for adults is junk for children, but I will come back to this point later.

Research findings: When comparing children with parents in a discussion about the children, there is more emphasis placed on whether they will eat. Children are not especially alert to the nutritional component of their diet, but the major concern here is that neither are their parents.

The biggest issue for parents is that the children will eat: any other considerations are subsidiary to that. Parents are likely to see sources of new ideas about food as helpful in extending their range of options and avoiding a monotonous concentration on a few components. It could be argued that increased variety is much more likely to result in a balanced diet than increasing awareness of the nutritional value of various food components. Variety also avoids a build-up of any undesirable substance by over-concentration, and a varied diet is likely to include all of the food components one needs: 'You see a food advert: it maybe gives you an idea as to what to have for tea'.

IMPLICATIONS

We believe that myths about children's diet and family concerns abound, both among families and in political and professional spheres. This piece of research has shown that families generally take a pretty balanced view of the issues involved. It has also shown that it is entirely possible to acquire straightforward evidence to challenge these damaging myths, if you use a powerful enough methodology.

As far as the myths themselves are concerned, we can fairly conclusively reject the notion that family diets are seen as dominated by whatever advertisers choose to promote on television. The dominant concern of parents is to ensure that their children get fed, and therefore to give the children what they will eat. This is usually approached in a realistic and co-operative way. Family activities around food are not primarily a battleground; they are a rich source of family interaction and negotiation.

The research also contains data which could be analysed more deeply. Such an analysis would provide information that would enable advertisers to discover to which approaches parents would be open, and which would be likely to provoke resistance or resentment. A few specific tendencies were:

  • In many families, the diets of the adults are largely determined by what the children will eat (this does not apply to what the parents eat outside the home.) An implication of this is that widening the choice for children will widen the choice for adults.
  • Resentment arises mostly when a food item is bought on the basis of an aspect that is irrelevant to the food (for instance, the almost ubiquitous plastic dinosaur) and then rejected by the child.
  • Families very rarely describe playing off one food against another. Some play-off between products is accounted for by attempts to maintain variety. When direct comparisons are made these are almost invariably of brands rather than product categories, but the frequency of this is surprisingly low. Given the nature of the interviews, this implies that when they are considering whether to buy something, mothers (mostly) think in terms of product category; their priority is to judge what will be eaten and avoiding boredom with a specific food is part of this. The choice between brands operates on the decision of what to buy, and may operate much more strongly during shopping than while at home. Of course, many choices are made from what is available at home, and in the light of practicalities, but by this stage brand choices have already been made.
Given the tendency of parents to equate healthy food with supplements, there needs to be a shift towards recognising that a varied diet is likely to provide the full range of nutrition and avoid deficiencies. Parents are already open to the need for new items in the diet, though this perception is driven primarily by the wish to ensure their children eat enough. Advertising could use this existing perception to make a positive contribution by increasing the variety of what children will eat. I should say that we have in the existing data the potential to discover more about what will be acceptable messages to parents, but we (like the parents) are a long way from knowing what causes children to switch their likes and dislikes.

I conclude with some broader implications which emerge from the whole range of research that we have conducted with families. To be consistent, I shall express these, too, as myths:

  • Research with children is difficult.

    This research has shown that, with appropriate training and methods, interviewing children both individually and within their families, in a research facility or at home, is extremely productive. As well as being enlightening in ways that interviews with parents may not be, it can also be fun.

  • Parents have taken on board current dietary advice.

    Unfortunately this seems not to be the case, and there is much work to do to help parents have a better appreciation of children's needs. The advertising industry has a lot to offer here.

  • A healthy diet for children is the same as a healthy diet for overweight adults. Corollary: the problem for children is overweight, as with adults.

    The urgent problem in this country is that many young children are getting inadequate diets. 'Inadequate' in this context usually means simply not enough food. It is difficult to provide a child with enough calories without them getting at least the minimum requirements of protein. Let me offer an example. I was recently working with a family whose three-year-old was seriously underfed, to the point that his life was threatened. The parents were very concerned about his condition. Eventually, I discovered that they were buying him skimmed milk because they believed that it is healthier. Children should not have fat and carbohydrate (even sugar) restricted in the way one might for an adult on a diet.

  • Food is a serious business.

    In our research with underfed children, we have found that one difference from families that eat healthily is the interest and enjoyment that the latter have around food.

  • TV ads have no value for children except when they are officially educational.

    We have a strong impression that television advertisements, like all the activities around food, are closely interwoven into the interactional patterns and the cultural life of children. Whatever opinion one may have about it, I think it is a fact that television has totally entered the lives of the families of this country. It is time to concentrate on enhancing its potential contribution, rather than attempting to limit it.

CONCLUSIONS

The issue of influences on children's diets goes well beyond the immediate needs of the advertising industry. I believe that misconceptions and misrepresentations of children and families have allowed a set of myths to develop which are at the basis of many concerns about food advertising. But a thoughtless acceptance of these myths will have widely damaging consequences, and they need to be challenged. Advertising can make a significant contribution to families having an enjoyable, varied and healthy diet. To make this contribution it needs to be free from unnecessary myths, and when strong underlying assumptions appear they should be checked out through research.

NOTES & EXHIBITS


Peter Stratton

Peter Stratton

Peter Stratton is a Senior Lecturer in Child Development at the Psychology Department of Leeds University and Chairman of the Psychology Business, which he founded to bring intensive qualitative research techniques to industry. He is also a family therapist, and Director of the Leeds Family Therapy and Research Centre. He has been involved with market research since working for RBL (now Research International) in 1965.