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Meanings That Youth Associate With Healthy And Unhealthy Food

Michelle Harrison, Lois A. Jackson

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Purpose: The symbolic meanings that youth associate with food were explored, as were barriers to accessing healthy foods. Methods: Qualitative methods and a constructivist approach were employed, and data were collected through semi-structured interviews and a card-sorting activity. Thirteen adolescents aged 13 to 15 (seven girls, six boys) were recruited through public schools and posters displayed in community settings. Thematic analytical techniques were used to analyze the data. Results: Participants classified foods into healthy and unhealthy groups, as well as into an “in-between” group that included nutritionally enhanced foods. Healthy and unhealthy foods were linked to a variety of physical, social, and emotional meanings. Some meanings associated with foods were also discussed in gendered terms, and numerous barriers to accessing healthy foods were reported. Conclusions: Foods hold multiple meanings for youth. Programs and policies aimed at fostering healthy eating need to capitalize on positive associations related to healthy foods. Negative associations related to healthy foods need to be acknowledged and strategies developed to recast such linkages. Likewise, the positive associations linked to unhealthy foods need to be addressed. Strategies also need to be developed to ensure access to healthy foods in all settings, especially within schools and community leisure settings.