Why healthy eating is bad for young people's health: Identity, belonging and food



Stead M, McDermott L, MacKintosh AM & Adamson A (2011) Why healthy eating is bad for young people's health: Identity, belonging and food. Social Science and Medicine, 72 (7), pp. 1131-1139.

Research into young people and healthy eating has focussed on identifying the 'barriers' to healthy eating and on developing interventions to address them. However, it has tended to neglect the emotional, social and symbolic aspects of food for young people, and the roles food might play in adolescence. This paper explores these issues, reporting findings from a qualitative study which explored the meanings and values young people attached to food choices, particularly in school and peer contexts. As part of a larger study into young people's relationships with food brands, 12 focus groups were conducted with young people aged 13-15 in the North East of England. The focus groups found that young people used food choices to help construct a desired image, as a means of judging others, and to signal their conformity with acceptable friendship and peer norms. Importantly, the findings suggested that the social and symbolic meanings associated with healthy eating conflicted with processes and values which are of crucial importance in adolescence, such as self-image and fitting in with the peer group. In other words, it was emotionally and socially risky to be seen to be interested in healthy eating. Interventions need not only to make healthy eating easier and more available, but also to address young people's emotional needs for identity and belonging.

North east England; Nutrition; Healthy eating; Adolescents; School food; Food brands; Identity; Belonging; UK; Qualitative research

Social Science and Medicine: Volume 72, Issue 7

Publication date30/04/2011

People (1)


Ms Anne Marie MacKintosh
Ms Anne Marie MacKintosh

Senior Researcher, Institute for Social Marketing