Health communication implications of the perceived meanings of terms used to denote unhealthy foods
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Background: Using appropriate terminology in nutrition education programs and behaviour change campaigns is important to optimise the effectiveness of these efforts. To inform future communications on the topic of healthy eating, this study explored adults’ perceptions of the meaning of four terms used to describe unhealthy foods: junk food, snack food, party food, and discretionary food. Methods: Australian adults were recruited to participate in an online survey that included demographic items and open-ended questions relating to perceptions of the four terms. In total, 409 respondents aged 25–64 years completed the survey. Results: ‘Junk food’ was the term most clearly aligned with unhealthiness, and is therefore likely to represent wording that will have salience and relevance to many target audience members. Snack foods were considered to include both healthy and unhealthy food products, and both snack foods and party foods were often described as being consumed in small portions. Despite being used in dietary guidelines, the term ‘discretionary food’ was unfamiliar to many respondents. Conclusions: These results demonstrate that different terms for unhealthy foods can have substantially different meanings for audience members. A detailed understanding of these meanings is needed to ensure that nutrition guidance and health promotion campaigns use appropriate terminology.
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