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Online Stanford nutrition course improves participants’ eating habits, study finds

I'm a big fan of Stanford's free online course on child nutrition and cooking. And it's not just me: Since the course launched in early 2014, more than 200,000 people have enrolled and watched the quick, informative, charming videos about understanding nutrition and making healthy food for kids. My favorite video, above, shows how to cook toad-in-a-hole, a comfort food I've loved since my own childhood.

Recently, instructor Maya Adam, MD, and her colleagues tested the effect of completing the course. When they designed the course, they hoped it would improve participants' eating habits. A few other institutions had seen promising results from smaller online nutrition courses, but none of those combined nutrition instruction with hands-on demos of how to actually put their advice into practice in the kitchen. Yet other research suggests that making this connection between the "why" and "how" of healthy eating is important, since many people say that their lack of cooking know-how keeps them from eating well.

The results of the study, which appears in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, showed that the course is a success. Based on data from 7,422 participants surveyed about their eating habits before and after taking the course, the material presented helped participants cook fresh foods at home more often and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. After the course, participants were also more likely to say that their previous day's dinner was enjoyable and healthy.

"This is part of a growing body of research suggesting that just learning to cook can lead to improved dietary intake, which has amazing implications for public health interventions aimed at preventing overweight and obesity," Adam told me in an e-mail.

One noteworthy aspect of the findings was that the course participants came from more than 80 countries, with more than half residing outside the U.S. "With growing internet access around the world, people everywhere could learn health prevention behaviors through open-access courses," Adam said.

In fact, she has another online Stanford course in the works, this one featuring well-known food writer Michael Pollan. The new course, which will launch in January, will be available in two versions: One, intended for physicians who need continuing medical education credits, presents nutrition information at a more technical level, while the companion course for the general public has simple explanations accessible to everyone. The open-access version of the course could even be a resource for doctors to share with their patients, Adam said. "It could potentially reduce the time physicians need to spend counseling their patients on food, and give the patients videos and activities they can use to support their own health in the long term," she said.

Previously: Forget perfection and just cook for your kids, says new book by Stanford author, Where is the love? A discussion of nutrition, health and repairing our relationship with food and Free Stanford online course on child nutrition & cooking

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