Eat your veggies: New research offers promising, practical tools to fight childhood obesity

We already know that shifting children’s diets away from junk and toward whole foods – especially produce – is a key piece of the puzzle of preventing childhood obesity. What we know less about is how to nudge kids to voluntarily choosing veggies at snack time. New research in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows that, at a very young age, children are capable of grasping overarching nutrition concepts. Moreover, doing so changes their behaviors. (They actually choose to eat more vegetables!)

The fascinating part of the story is more than the results of the research. It’s also the researchers’ development and use of practical tools to help kids learn the concepts: story books. A number of outlets covered the story; we liked Ann Hart’s in-depth summary at

Psychological scientists Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markman of Stanford University hypothesized that preschoolers would be capable of understanding a more conceptual approach to nutrition, despite their young age. “Children have natural curiosity — they want to understand why and how things work,” the researchers explain in the July 1, 2013 news release…. “Of course we need to simplify materials for young children, but oversimplification robs children of the opportunity to learn and advance their thinking.”

Gripshover and Markman developed five storybooks aimed at revising and elaborating on what children already know about different nutrition….

The researchers assigned some preschool classrooms to read nutrition books during snack time for about 3 months, while other classrooms were assigned to conduct snack time as usual. Later, the preschoolers were asked questions about nutrition.

The children who had been read the nutrition books were more likely to understand that food had nutrients, and that different kinds of nutrients were important for various bodily functions (even functions that weren’t mentioned in the books)…

When the conceptual program was pitted against a more conventional teaching strategy focused on the enjoyment of healthy eating and trying new foods, the results showed that both interventions led to increased vegetable consumption. Yet, the children in the conceptual program showed more knowledge about nutrition and a greater overall increase in vegetable consumption.

Childhood obesity is a complex problem with many causes. Our best hope of turning the crisis around lies in prevention. The development of successful, evidence-based approaches and practical tools that can be used by parents, educators and others to teach kids to make their own healthy choices will make all the difference to our ultimate success.

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