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Stanford University School of Medicine

No bribery necessary: Children eat more vegetables when they understand how food affects their bodies

It's so straightforward, it's hard to believe it could possibly work: If you teach children why their bodies need different kinds of foods they voluntarily eat more vegetables. This seemingly unlikely finding is exactly what Stanford psychologists Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markman, PhD, discovered when they taught preschool children about nutrition. These findings suggest that children make better choices when they understand the consequences of their actions.

In the journal Psychological Science, Gripshover and her graduate advisor, Markman, explain their refreshingly direct approach to the age-old problem of getting kids to eat their vegetables.

Gripshover and Markman created five different children's books explaining various concepts related to the properties of different foods, how the body uses nutrients from these foods, and the benefits of these nutrients. Children in four preschool classrooms were divided into two treatments. The children in two classrooms were read one of these five books every week during snack time and were asked questions about the books, while children in the remaining two classrooms simply snacked.

The preschool children that learned about nutrition more than doubled the amount of vegetables they consumed at snack time. From a recent Stanford release:

"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.

Yet, Gripshover and Markman acknowledge that this approach is just one of potentially many important ways to help children make better diet decisions:

"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 behaviorally focused nutrition interventions with the hope of boosting healthy eating more than either technique alone."

The research team also says more studies are needed to determine whether or not the diet shifts they observed at snack time translate into improved eating habits throughout the day, and how long the effects last. If children apply these snack time lessons to all meals, and if the effects endure, parents and childcare professionals could foster healthy habits that last a lifetime by helping children comprehend how their bodies work.

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: Want kids to eat their veggies? Researchers suggest labeling foods with snazzy names, To squeeze or not to squeeze: Using packaged foods to increase a child’s fruit and veggie intake, Making fruit more attractive to kids, Is pureeing the key to getting children to eat their veggies?, ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ to help kids eat healthier and Can rebranding make kids choose veggies over junk food?
Photo by Harshal S. Hirve

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