Young People and Food: Adolescent Dietary Beliefs and Understandings

Date: 2005

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The aim of this study is to contribute to the development of an effective food risk communications strategydirected at young people. From the outset the project recognised the interdependence of young people’s understandings of healthy eating behaviour and their perceptions of the risks associated with food and dietary behaviours. Consequently, the various stages of the research aimed to establish a baseline understanding of young people’s knowledge of food related issues and beliefs as well as their reported dietary behaviour.

From this baseline, the various potential barriers to long-term healthy eating and factors affecting the reception of food risk communications were elucidated. This allowed the delineation of possible pathways that may promote a healthy diet in this population as well as identifying possible avenues of influence for food risk communications. Finally, we examined how different presentations of food risk communications, relating to snacking behaviour, were evaluated by young people.

This two year study involved a total of 5,000 adolescents aged 12-17 sampled from over 80 schools across the island of Ireland. Three methods were employed in the study:

  1. 12 focus groups were employed to map out the complex ways in which young people  understandnutritional issues and food risks. The open-ended discussions encouraged participants to volunteer the various considerations they take into account in their everyday dietary behaviour as well as assessing their level of knowledge on key food related issues.
  2. The survey was conducted on 3,436 randomly selected adolescents from 80 schools across the island of Ireland. The age of participants ranged from 12 to 18, with an average of 15 years of age. 1,305 respondents attended school in Northern Ireland and 2,131 were recruited from schools in the Republic. As a result of different proportions of boys and girls in single sex education, our sampling strategy recruited 1,290 boys and 2,107 girls.
  3. Two experimental studies were conducted on a strategic sample of over 1,300 adolescents across both regions. Snacking behaviour was chosen as a topic familiar to adolescents and one which is within the realm of their control. Participants were given one of a number of dietary communications about snacking embedded in a questionnaire of pre- and post- measures of dietary attitudes and beliefs. Communications either encouraged or discouraged snacking behaviour; contained advice that varied in the certainty surrounding the benefits or costs of snacking; and reported how stable scientific advice had been on snacking behaviour over time. This allowed us to look at the impact of these factors on young peoples’ perceptions and beliefs.