Helping teens choose vegetables over junk food


I recently took a walk through the cafeteria of my school as middle school students were sitting down to eat lunch. As I walked past table after table I noticed a disturbing pattern. All the food on children’s cafeteria trays were white. Potato wedges, chicken fingers, bread, pizza, not a colourful vegetable or fruit to be seen. This would be a disconcerting sight at any time in the year but many of these students had just completed a health unit where we investigated nutrition and healthy eating models. With this knowledge fresh in their minds, why did these middle schoolers make such unhealthy choices?

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Many factors contribute to the choices a person makes, and food choices are no different. Family values, culture, socio economic, advertising, availability and more influence what we eat. But I believe the factor that may be hardest to teach our students is delayed gratification. Delayed gratification is the ability to resist the temptation for immediate reward and wait for a later reward. In this case, children choose pizza and potato wedges and the dopamine high and consequent crash you get when you eat high sugar or salt foods, over eating nutritionally valuable food that will help their brains concentrate and focus in their afternoon classes. This is a problem for adults too. Some of us continue to smoke for 5 minutes of relaxation, knowing that what we are doing is terrible for our long term health. How can we teach our young people to resist the junk and think of eating in a more holistic way?

Just like we train our muscles in the gym, we have the ability to train our brains. We can build our capacity to delay gratification. In order for our brains to comprehend delaying gratification, James Clear tells us it needs to be sure of two things, 1) yes it’s worth the wait and, 2) yes, I have the capacity to do this. Start small. Attempting to make big sweeping changes is difficult for anyone. For the middle school students eating lunch, it could be swapping out pizza for some vegetables or yoghurt, thus avoiding the mid afternoon sugar crash. It’s worth the wait because they know they can engage in class and not feel like a zombie after lunch. I know their teachers would appreciate it. It’s our job to build their capacity.

More information on delayed gratification:

Stanford delayed gratification marshmallow experiment:

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