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Stanford University School of Medicine

Nutrition expert Christopher Gardner discusses ways to encourage healthy eating

A few years back, a team of researchers (including Stanford's Scott Rozelle, PhD, and Brian Sharbono) conducted a study in some of the poorest counties in Shaanxi Province, China where anemia was a chronic problem. The researchers gave daily iron supplements to children in 24 elementary schools, and after just five months, not only were the students' hemoglobin levels higher, but so were their standardized math test scores.

“People often don’t see nutrition and education as being friends, or as being related,” said Dan Schwartz, PhD, dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, as he began a recent episode of School’s In, the radio show he hosts with Denise Pope, PhD, a senior lecturer.

To help explain how nutrition and learning are linked, they invited Christopher Gardner, PhD, director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, to join them for a discussion of nutrition in schools, what gets in the way of eating right and how to help picky eaters (particularly kids) eat better.

Gardner's research focuses on identifying what people can eat to optimize their health, and finding out what successfully motivates people to make better food choices. The latter part of his research "came about after years of my own frustration," Gardner explained.

His interest in nutrition began several years ago. "I was a philosophy major who wanted to have a vegetarian restaurant," Gardner said. "By mistake I got a PhD and a faculty position," he added with a chuckle. "I ran NIH-funded studies, published things and shared them with the public who didn’t follow what I was finding."

Instead of throwing in the towel, Gardner decided to find out why people weren't eating better despite having more and better information on what to eat. After talking to several people Gardner discovered that knowing what to eat is only half the battle. “Turns out people like convenience, taste, all sorts of other things that don’t have anything to do with health," Gardner said.

"We put food in the hands of nutritionists and it tasted like cardboard," Gardner continued. Or, if the food tasted fine but not fantastic, we made it sound less appetizing by describing the food in apologetic terms, Gardner explained. "We've got this thing, and it's nutritious, and it's almost as good as the thing that you like."

Now, he's working with a team of chefs and researchers from several institutions as part of a group, called Menus of Change, that aims to create what they call "unapologetically delicious food" that's good for you and is environmentally sustainable.

"What do you do with a kid that says, 'No, I'm not even going to try'?" Pope asked.

“It takes 10 to 15 times of trying a food to get kids to like it,” Gardner said. "Introducing small bites of things can build up that familiarity.” Then he gave an example of how he introduced his own kids to bell peppers by cutting one red, one green and one yellow bell pepper into equal pieces, blindfolding himself and saying to his kids, "I wonder if I can guess what these are?"

Gardner got every try wrong, which prompted his children to see if they could do better. Before long, his kids had eaten every last bite of bell pepper.

"Coercing doesn't work. I'm interested in stealth nutrition, but not if it's deceptive," Gardner explained. "Rather than sneaking something in and tricking them, I'd much rather have them embrace the different reasons for eating it."

Previously: Getting up steam to eat better: Stanford scientists find what works, Forget perfection and just cook for your kids, says new book by Stanford author, 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' to help kids eat healthier and Stealth equals health
Thumbnail image by A Healthier Michigan

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