Is healthy eating the new way to rebel?

Healthy diet

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For many, eating plays a distinctive and complex role in daily life. Both a routine necessity and a source of pleasure, and sometimes an issue of self-value, the average individual often finds themselves in a dynamic and shifting relationship with the food they eat. Particularly in highly developed countries, influences including the global media, the schedule of the working day and economic factors are tied to the way we experience what we eat.

However, more than ever, food also presents a uniquely placed opportunity for each of us to create the lifestyle we want to uphold. From eating out at healthy restaurants to trading snacks for salad, our food choices can make improvements throughout our lives.

A recent study has suggested that a group of society traditionally perceived to over-indulge in unhealthy foods as a matter of recourse is increasingly taking a more enlightened attitude towards what they eat.

Teens may improve eating as rebellion against authority

According to a new study by the University of Texas, teenagers could be at the forefront of the healthy eating movement. Whilst typically many teens view healthy eating as “lame”, co-author David Yeager says there is one great way to switch this resistance into a passion for healthy food. He says:

“If you make healthy eating seem like the rebellious thing that you do, you make your own choices, you fight against injustice, then it could be seen as high status.”

After following 536 schoolchildren aged 13 and 15 years, the University of Texas found that teens exposed to the perception of fast food marketers as manipulative authority figures were significantly more likely to improve their eating habits than those instructed on the benefits of a balanced diet.

This comes as a promising discovery for those concerned by the rising levels of obesity that have been prominent throughout the past few decades. As the National Diet and Nutrition Survey exposes, British teens are on average consuming more than triple the recommended daily allowance of sugar. This is a sobering thought considering that, as Diabetes UK reports, cases of diabetes have risen by 59.8 per cent in just ten years.

Unhealthy eating as ‘lateral agency’?

In 2007, University of Chicago scholar Lauren Berlant published “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)”, a probing paper on the social causes of poor eating choices in western societies. She concludes that, as a source of pleasure, food can become part of the activity of “reproducing life”. Under capitalism, busy and stressed individuals may eat unhealthily or overeat as a form of lateral rebellion that merely “reproduces life”. However, she warns:

“Reproducing life is not identical to making it or oneself better, or to a response to the structural conditions of a collective failure to thrive, but to making a less bad experience. It’s a relief.”

The act of eating unhealthily, then, is also an attempt at rebellion – if only one that resists the pressures of the daily routine by allowing oneself “relief”. However, when we consider the manipulation of fast food PR and the damage that unhealthy eating can reap, it is clear that this rebellion is not good for the individual or ‘the system’.

Berlant argues that the solution to balancing the urgency of the obesity ‘epidemic’ with creating a sustainable relationship between individuals and food is largely in thinking differently about food in itself. She says that the image of obesity “needs to be separated from eating as a phenomenological act and from food as a space of expressivity as well as nourishment.” This means that healthy eating shouldn’t be seen as something to be a chore to manage but as a positive agent for happiness. However, the reality of the social dynamics underlying the fast food industry must be addressed.

Harnessing rebellion to encourage a healthy food choices

The findings of the University of Texas nearly ten years later solidify this point. The most successful formula in encouraging teens to eat healthily appeared to be firstly educating them as to the ulterior motives of fast food marketing, and then presenting healthy eating as an ethical choice. According to Yeager and his colleagues, teens who were aware of the dynamics of food advertising were more likely to agree with the statement: “When I eat healthy, I am helping to make the world a better place”.

Blogger Kristen from Put it on Kristen’s Plate discusses her experience with conflicting attitudes towards food in her blog post musing on Berlant’s article. She says:

“There is a powerful sense of agency that I derive from doing whatever I want and eating what I want now because of this logic that ‘we're all going to die anyways so we may as well enjoy ourselves while we can.’ Berlant's chapter has made me realize that this form of agency is lateral, it's not self-preserving”.

Clearly Kristen acknowledges that consuming unhealthy food is not an act of defiance that benefits herself or others, and this is what the University of Texas is attempting to teach teenagers. Food choices can be an act of power, identity and defiance. Healthy eating can, too, be a source of rebellion, and perhaps one far better suited to the aim of improving our own lives and the lives of others.