The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Evolutionary biology offers an effective tool for changing high school students’ attitudes about healthy food choices


Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, School of Communication, Emerson College

Thursday 2, Park Concourse Add to calendar

The pilot study presented here involved an “intervention experiment” whereby evolutionary biology was used as a tool for changing high school students' attitudes and preferences about healthy food choices. The study aimed specifically to address: Does knowledge of human evolutionary biology make a difference in students' understanding of health consequences related to their dietary choices? Is this knowledge sufficient to effect behavioral changes?

Students were recruited from a high school biology class in Cambridge, MA and randomly assigned to attend one of two nutrition workshops for approximately one hour. Informed consent by parent or guardian was obtained prior to participation in the study. Group A received instruction in dietary physiology alone. Group B received instruction in dietary physiology coupled with human evolutionary biology. This allowed for isolating and testing the value of exposure to evolutionary biology as a means of effecting behavioral change. Documentation of students' perceptions, attitudes and food choices before, during, and after the experiment involved the use of food diaries, questionnaires, and film interviews. Film interviews yielded qualitative findings -- enabling students to express thoughts, feelings, and attitudes in an open-ended way.

Although sample size was small, the results showed unequivocally and unanimously that exposure to evolutionary biology shifted students’ perceptions of healthy food choices. Knowledge of evolutionary biology also led to precise dietary changes students intended to implement immediately. These findings indicated that the emergent field of evolutionary medicine holds potential as an untapped yet effective public health intervention strategy regarding the dietary choices of youth.

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