Campaigns that try to get young people to lose weight by focusing on their dissatisfaction with their appearance are missing the point, new research suggests.
Young people who don't like their appearance are no more motivated to change their eating habits than those who are happy with the way they look, research from the University of Bath shows.
But getting children of all sizes to think more about their bodies, not necessarily favourably or unfavourably, makes them much more receptive to campaigns about losing weight and keeping healthy. TV shows such as those involving chef Jamie Oliver can help.
Ekant Veer, a lecturer in the Marketing Group in the University's School of Management, studied 330 schoolchildren aged between 13 and 18.
In the first study into the effectiveness of obesity campaigns, Mr Veer found that some children said there was a big difference between their body size and that of the smaller size they wanted to be.
But these children were no more motivated to change by dieting and exercise than those who were close to their ideal weights, the study found. Twenty-six per cent of those whose ideal size was much thinner than their own size said they wanted to eat healthier and exercise more, and 25 per cent of those who were close to their weight said the same.
However, Mr Veer also split the 330 children into two groups, one of which was asked to draw a picture of themselves.
Both groups were then shown one of two types of advertising posters; one a motivational poster urging them to get in shape and the other an educational poster giving them specific advice on how to lose weight.
Seventy-five per cent of those who had drawn the picture of themselves, and who had therefore had to think about their bodies, said they would eat healthier and exercise more after seeing the advertisements, compared to only 58 per cent of those who had not drawn a picture of themselves.
"These results show that when a student is thinking about their size, the use of ads to encourage them to eat healthier or be more active has a significant effect," said Mr Veer.
"This research shows that getting young people to think about themselves frequently makes them much more receptive to campaigns giving information about how to eat more healthily and to exercise.
"TV shows such as those involving Jamie Oliver and school dinners are an excellent starting point since they will make school children think about their weight, without making the children feel like they are not attractive or worthless. These types of messages don't work."
"Health professionals should bear this in mind when they come to create campaigns or their efforts could be a waste of resources."
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.