Brainwashing Is The New Weapon Against Childhood Obesity

Illustration for article titled Brainwashing Is The New Weapon Against Childhood Obesity

Most parents want their kids to eat healthy, but one memory expert had a somewhat disturbing solution.

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As part of his ongoing series on memory modification, Slate's William Saletan describes Dr. Elizabeth Loftus's research into food memories. She found that telling people they'd become sick in childhood from eating certain foods — supposedly based on information from a survey but actually a total fabrication — could make them avoid those foods (or at least say they would — whether they actually did avoid them later wasn't within the scope of the study). While she initially tried the experiment with hard-boiled eggs and pickles, she quickly expanded to false memories about "fattening" foods (the term itself is somewhat problematic), arguing that "we can, through suggestion, manipulate nutritional selection and possibly even improve health."

It all sounds a little Men in Black — and as Saletan points out, her memory manipulation approach did involve, um, lying. Apparently she recognized this might be unethical with adults, but saw nothing wrong with lying to kids, stating,

[T]here's nothing to stop a parent from trying something like this with an overweight child or teen. [...] A white lie that might get them to eat broccoli and asparagus vs. a lifetime of obesity and diabetes: Which would you rather have for your kid?

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Loftus's "fattening foods" research was first published in 2005, but she's now working on memory therapy for alcoholism in adults. And the lying-to-kids school of obesity prevention moved closer to the mainstream when Jessica Seinfeld's 2007 cookbook advocated hiding vegetables in mac and cheese. While getting kids to eat their cauliflower is a valuable goal, Loftus's "white lies or diabetes" formulation is pretty simplistic. Don't kids, as well as adults, deserve some autonomy over their own memories, if not their actual food decisions? While some found fault with restaurateur Nicola Marzovilla's recent insistence to the Times that "children's menus are the death of civilization," there's something to be said for giving kids at least some semblance of the culinary choice adults enjoy. After all, kids might learn some day that cake didn't run over their dog, and then where will they be? Then again, perhaps Loftus and her team will figure out some largescale social memory modification technique, and in five years we'll all think trans fats caused the economic crisis or something. Which will probably make MeMe Roth really happy.

Image via Thomas M Perkins/Shutterstock.com.

Training Humans [Slate]

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DISCUSSION

When I was a kid, I loved all the "good" foods and hated all the "bad" foods.

I loved broccoli, I would bite straight into tomatoes, there was this diner where the waiters knew to just bring the little girl a plate of shredded carrots. I hated soda, cookies, pizza (I'd only eat it without the cheese), and cake (though I did always love brownies and apple pie).

I'm not sure where those tastes came from. Was it my natural preference? Was it because my mom generally ate healthy and that's what I was exposed to?

Interestingly, I think what changed my tastes was peer pressure. Kids had pizza and soda and cake at their birthday parties, and I didn't want to be left out, I wanted to be "cool," so I ate it and acquired a taste. I still love my vegetables, but now also LOVE pizza. I like soda/cookies/cake too, though I'm still more into savory than sweet.

I often wish I still had my childhood tastes.