Barriers to Healthy Eating and Messages to Reach At-Risk Teens

Rates of childhood obesity as measured by the YRBS are on the rise, exacerbated by challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. When schools closed, many children lost the safety net of access to nutritious food and mandatory physical activity as well as their social networks and familiar routines, further contributing to trends in obesity. In our presentation delivered at the 2021 APHA Meeting Expo and Summit, Rescue Sr. Research Scientist Shiloh Beckerley, Ph.D. dived into our research with Oklahoma teens that informed our obesity prevention campaign “Swap Up,” created in partnership with the TSET Healthy Youth Initiative.

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Data Gathering: Quantitative and Qualitative Research

To learn more about teen nutrition in Oklahoma, we gathered quantitative online survey data from 403 Oklahoma teenagers 13-17 and completed online focus groups and interviews with 21 teens. We measured nutrition trends, including consumption of fruits and vegetables; consumption of fast food and sugar-sweetened beverages; barriers to eating fruits and vegetables; knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs related to healthy eating; and perceived norms of healthy eating.

We also tested obesity prevention messaging preferences and feedback. By showing storyboards to participants, we tested the perceived effectiveness (PE) score and assessed if the storyboard was seen as SAVI: Specific, Acceptable, Viable, and Impactful. Participants also engaged in a qualitative discussion about features they liked and disliked about each concept, including message framing, style, and tone.

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Results: Teens Values, Attitudes, and Beliefs about Nutrition

Throughout this research, we found that teens overall want to be healthier. They care about their physical performance as well as their emotional well-being. However, many aren’t meeting the daily fruit or vegetable recommendations. And most drank a sugar-sweetened beverage at least once in the past seven days.

The biggest barriers to nutrition are the absence of guidance on healthier alternatives, high acceptability of concerning behaviors among friends and family, and the perceived viability of unhealthy options.

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Message Testing: Creating 'SAVI' campaigns That Show Teens How to Be Healthier

Next, we tested nutrition messaging with the participants. Typically, nutrition campaigns focus on telling people they should eat healthier. This approach often doesn’t work because people already know they should change, but do not know how to do so within their routines and realities. Offering practical guidance using the SAVI framework, in which all messages are Specific, Acceptable, Viable, and Impactful, can meaningfully change teen behavior.

Ad “Fuel for Football” leverages the insights that teens want to be healthier and care about their physical performance. It provides a specific tip to help them reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and increase water intake. In research, teens found this message to be acceptable, affordable and easy, and impactful. The ad gained a high perceived effectiveness score of 3.85. Watch this ad below:


If you’d like to learn more about partnering with us to develop a nutrition campaign for your community, please contact Dina Weldin, Group Management Director.


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