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Does knowledge of evolutionary biology change high school students’ attitudes about healthy eating?

  • Sherry, Diana S.1
  • 1 Emerson College, Institute of Liberal Arts, School of Communication, Boston, MA, 02116, USA , Boston (United States)
Published Article
Evolution: Education and Outreach
Springer US
Publication Date
Nov 14, 2019
DOI: 10.1186/s12052-019-0111-4
Springer Nature


BackgroundEmbedded in the emerging area of evolutionary medicine is the premise that evolutionary biology can serve a pedagogical function with widespread applications for education and outreach. Although great strides have been taken over the decades by the science education community to improve evolution education in general, the knowledge gulf or gap between advances in evolutionary medicine and public understanding through the educational system has widened at a rapid pace—and not without consequences for public health, especially for young people. Epidemiological data indicate that the high rates of obesity and type-2 diabetes have begun to extend to adolescents and teenagers, an alarming trend of great concern. Would knowledge of the evolutionary biology perspective on diet and health have value for young people? Little is known about the efficacy of evolutionary medicine education as a public health outreach strategy. A small study was conducted at a New England high school and consisted of two research components: (1) a cross-sectional survey of students’ views about what “healthy eating” means and (2) an intervention experiment designed to isolate exposure to knowledge of evolutionary biology. Data were collected through the use of questionnaires and analyzed according to qualitative methods.ResultsThe survey results showed that students had an accurate view of general guidelines for healthy eating in alignment with public health messaging (e.g., avoiding junk food, eating lots of fruits and vegetables). The main result from the intervention experiment showed that students who received instruction in nutritional physiology alone did not change their view of what “healthy eating” means, whereas students who received instruction in nutritional physiology coupled with evolutionary biology changed their views of healthy food choices, leading to intended dietary changes.ConclusionsA brief, one-time exposure to key concepts in evolutionary biology brought about a shift in students’ perceptions of healthy eating. An approach that can cause a shift in perception or attitude, considered an essential first step toward effecting behavioral change, merits further attention and development. Evolutionary medicine education holds strong potential as an untapped yet effective public health outreach strategy regarding the dietary choices of youth.

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