The conclusion is striking:  Michelle Obama’s initiative to reduce childhood obesity has influenced children’s dietary preferences. Researchers estimated that viewing a photograph of Michelle Obama’s face caused children to be 19 percent more likely to choose fruit over candy, on Halloween.  The experiment – Yale University researchers – was conducted on a New Haven porch over three consecutive Halloweens, and the results are published this month in a journal of the Public Library of Science (PLOS).

The participants were 1,223 trick-or-treaters in New Haven over three years; on average, 8.5 years old and 53 percent male (among children whose gender was identifiable). To be eligible for inclusion in the study, trick-or-treaters had to be over the age of three.

The porch of a home had photographs clearly visible in front of the trick-or-treating children.  One was of Michelle Obama.  The other side, the “comparison” side in the study, “had a photo of Ann Romney (2012), a photo of Hillary Clinton (2014, 2015), or no photo (2014, 2015).”

At both sides of the porch, children were asked their age and whether they would prefer to receive fruit (a box of raisins) or candy (a more typical small packaged piece of name-brand chocolate such as Snickers or Milky Ways). Each child was given the option (fruit or candy) that they requested.

“The experimental set-up allows us to measure what proportion of children chose fruit instead of candy when in the presence of an image of Michelle Obama’s face, as well as the proportion of children who chose fruit instead of candy when not in the presence of an

image of Michelle Obama’s face,” the researchers pointed out.

Publishing the research are Peter M. Aronow, Dean Karlan, Lauren E. Pinson.  Peter Aronow is Assistant Professor of Political Science and in the Institute for Social and Policy Studies and of Public Health at Yale University; Dean Karlan is a Professor of Economics at Yale; Lauren Pinson is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Yale University.

The experiment was conducted in the East Rock neighborhood of New Haven, which is about one mile from the Yale University campus, and contains many single family homes owned by Yale faculty, as well as some multi-family homes in which many graduate students live, the study explained. “There are also low income neighborhoods within a mile of this neighborhood,” and “due to the high level of activity during Halloween, many families drive from further away in order to trick-or-treat in this neighborhood.”

The study provides background, explaining that “During her tenure as First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama has spearheaded one of the largest public health initiatives focused on childhood obesity. In 2010, Obama unveiled her Let’s Move Initiative, aimed at fostering a healthy lifestyle and reducing childhood obesity. As the public face of the campaign, Obama urged healthy eating and exercise in a variety of classic and social media venues accessible to minors and their parents, including appearances on Sesame Street and Oprah and posts of online videos.”

In regards to the results, the researchers caution that “we ran the experiment on a day where candy is readily available, the influence on children’s dietary preference for fruit instead of candy may differ from other days of the year; for instance, perhaps children are more willing to choose fruit since it is unique for the holiday, or children are less willing to choose fruit because they are under the influence of sugar consumption.”

PLOS was founded in 2001 as a nonprofit Open Access publisher, innovator and advocacy organization with a mission to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication.

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