Nutrition lessons see children eat more vegetables, US study
Teaching children about nutrition drives them to voluntarily eat more vegetables, according to a study undertaken at Standford University in the US.
The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that young children are capable of understanding a conceptual approach to nutrition, and that children who were taught about healthy foods were more likely to choose them for snacks.
The researchers, psychologists Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markman, said people often assume that explanations of complex, abstract concepts will be too confusing for young children, but that children have a “natural curiosity” and want to understand how things work.
“We sought to harness this curiosity by creating a framework for guiding children to understand more deeply why they need to eat a variety of healthy foods,” the researchers said.
The researchers created five storybooks that emphasised key concepts about food and nutrition, including the importance of variety, how digestion works, the different food groups, characteristics of nutrients, and how nutrients help the body function.
A different book was read each week in two preschool classrooms during snack time for about three months, while two other classrooms had snack time as usual.
Later, the children, aged 4 to 5 years, were asked questions about food, nutrition and bodily functions to assess their grasp of the concepts outlined in the books.
The researchers found that the children who had heard the nutrition books more than doubled their voluntary intake of vegetables during snack time after the intervention. The amount of vegetables eaten by the children who did not hear the books remained the same.
Children who had hear the books were also more likely to demonstrate knowledge of digestion and the role nutrients play in the body.
Stanford approach more successful than USDA education
The researchers also compared their conceptual framework to a teaching strategy based on US Department of Agriculture (USDA) materials, which emphasise the enjoyment of healthy eating and encourage trying new foods.
Both methods boosted vegetable consumption by preschoolers, but children participating in the Stanford University study increased their vegetable intake by more overall.
“What sets our materials apart from other approaches is the care we took to explain to children why their body needs different kinds of healthy food. We did not train children to eat more vegetables specifically,” the researchers said.
More study needed to see if affect extends to other mealtimes
The researchers said more research is needed to find out whether the gains in healthy eating would translate into other mealtimes, including at home, and how long the gains last.
“There is no magic bullet to encourage healthy eating in young children,” the researchers said. “We view our approach as unique but possibly complementary to other strategies. In the future, our concept-based educational materials could be combined with behaviourally-focused nutrition interventions with the hope of boosting healthy eating more than either technique alone,” they said.