The psychology of getting kids (and spouses) to eat better

Want to get your child or other loved ones to eat better? Try telling them how good their veggies are for them instead of pointing out how bad that cookie is, experts say.

"The expression 'you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar' rings true in a lot of situations, including those surrounding food," Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian and author of "Read It Before You Eat It," told CBS News. "People are more receptive when you attach good messages to the food they're eating rather than bad ones."

A recent study from Cornell University confirmed this notion. Researchers found that messages emphasizing what we should be eating instead of what we shouldn't are more effective.

"If you're a parent, it's better to focus on the benefits of broccoli and not the harms of hamburgers," lead author Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab said in a statement.

Wansink and a colleague analyzed 43 published international studies that involved either positive or negative nutrition messages. They found that although negative messages tended to resonate more with experts like dietitians and physicians, most other people would rather be told what they should eat and why it is good for them.

This infographic illustrates research by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab about positive and negative messages surrounding food.
Daniel Miller/Cornell Univ. Food and Brand Lab

The findings have implications for both personal family life and public health campaigns, experts say. Some public service announcements in recent years, including those aimed at obese children, have garnered controversy for being too dark and focusing too heavily on scare tactics. "Campaigns emphasizing harmful messages open up the door for more people to critique poor food choices, which surveys show people do not respond well to," Taub-Dix said.

As far as getting your own children to eat healthy, Taub-Dix suggested some other strategies for emphasizing the positive messages about food. "When my kids were younger, I had open discussions with them about what they were eating and how it was beneficial to them," she said. "I'd send notes in their lunchboxes, saying things like 'this sandwich is going to give you so much energy today' or 'I hope it helps you run faster.' I really tried to relate food to the things they enjoyed doing."

This concept can also be applied to having conversations about food with adults, whether you're trying to get your spouse to eat better or have a friend you'd like to see make more health-conscious decisions.

"If you're going to be the naysayer and bearer of bad news all the time, people will get turned off and stop listening," Taub-Dix said. "Food is one of the more pleasurable aspects of life so focusing on positive things, like how delicious and good for you it is, is a much better strategy."

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    Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com