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Researchers point to strategy that teaches children to eat more vegetables – 05/06/2022

It is not always easy to include vegetables, fruits and vegetables in children’s routine. But it seems that researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands have managed to find a good strategy to make this happen.

According to the authors of the study, released this Thursday (5), during the European Congress on Obesity, held in Maastricht, children are more willing to eat vegetables if they receive some kind of reward for trying them – and that is. it can’t be a dessert, for example.

“It’s important to start eating vegetables at an early age,” said the paper’s author, Britt Van Belkom, from the university’s Youth, Food and Health Program. “We know from previous research that young children typically need to try a new vegetable eight to ten times before they like it.”

How the study was done

The authors analyzed 598 children, aged 1 to 4 years, from school centers in Limburg, the Netherlands, who participated in the The Vegetable Box. “In this program, children are exposed to vegetables every day in day care,” explains Van Belkom, in a press interview.

The program offers a scientifically proven method to encourage consumption of these foods, providing educators and pedagogical staff with practical tools to integrate vegetables as a daily snack for children—both at home and at school.

As a result, the researchers randomly divided the children into three groups:

  1. Exposure to the vegetable, with reward;
  2. Exposure to the vegetable, but no reward;
  3. Control group (no exposure/no reward).

Children in the first two groups were given a chance to try a variety of vegetables every day they were at school for three months.

Knowledge of vegetables and willingness to taste were measured before exposure to food and after the research intervention period.

Asian child eating broccoli - Istock - Istock
Image: Istock

Another important point, which the author made a point of highlighting, is that the reward could not be another food, such as dessert. For the study, they selected fun gifts such as toy stickers, cards or crowns (of a king or queen).

The vegetables chosen to test the children’s knowledge were: tomato, lettuce, cucumber, carrot, pepper, onion, broccoli, peas, cauliflower, mushrooms, green beans, chicory, pumpkin and asparagus.

Recognizing the foods

Scientists tested participants’ knowledge by showing them the 14 vegetables and then asking them how many they could name — the maximum score was 14.

In the pre-test in the control group, the children were able to identify about 8 vegetables, and after three months the number had increased to almost 10.

Among the participants in the “exposure to the vegetable, but no reward” group and the “exposure/reward” group, in the pre-test, the children were able to name about 9 vegetables and, after the evaluated period, 11.

tasting the vegetables

Food consumption was measured by giving toddlers a chance to taste small pieces of six vegetables — tomato, cucumber, carrot, bell pepper, radish and cauliflower — and counting how much they were willing to taste. At this stage, the maximum score was 12.

In the pre-test, they were willing to try about 5 to 6 vegetables in all groups. In the reward group, this number increased to 7. In the control and non-reward group, the index remained the same.

“Only when they are exposed to vegetables and rewarded for doing so can you see a significant increase in trying to try the food after 3 months,” says the study’s author.

“Giving children vegetables regularly in day care significantly increases their ability to recognize various foods. But rewarding children for tasting vegetables also seems to increase their willingness to try different vegetables,” he said.

child eating salad, healthy eating, baby food - iStock - iStock
Image: iStock

The importance of creating habits from an early age

in conversation with Live wellresearcher Britt Van Belkom explained that this type of reward system can have a good (rather than a negative) influence when children are repeatedly exposed.

“If you repeat this exposure, we hope that these children, over time, and without any reward, will be able to continue eating vegetables,” he says. In this way, preventing them from growing up “unaccustomed” to always receiving something in return.

“We already observe this type of system with the act of going to the bathroom when they are younger. After a while, they stop needing a reward to do this”, he says. It’s the same logic as creating a healthy habit. Over time, it tends to be something natural.

*The reporter traveled at the invitation of Novo Nordisk.

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