Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Behavioral techniques uses to influence children's eating habits

Researchers in London have developed a program to influence children's eating habits using behavioral application techniques. The program was funded by the Irish government, the European Union Commission, and Unilever.

  • They created an educational video program called "Food Dudes" that relies on peer pressure, peer modeling, and a reward system to persuade kids to eat more fruit and vegetables and shun fatty foods.
  • The Food Dudes video stars a quartet of preadolescent kids who get superpowers from eating fruits and vegetables. The dudes battle General Junk, who steals healthy food, thereby robbing the world of its life force.
  • The Food Dudes are slightly older than the kids targeted in the program, making them believable role models. Prizes like small toys, pencils and pens are also an enticement.
  • "In some respects, we use the same techniques as multinationals selling junk food" said Dr. Fergus Lowe, a University of Wales psychologist who was part of the team that devised the program.
  • A pilot program at 150 schools in Ireland, targeting children aged 2 to 11, doubled intake of fruit and vegetables and in some cases boosted consumption of such foods by 10 to 14 times, the organizers say.
  • In one primary school, the fruit consumption of children aged five and six more than doubled. The kids were originally only eating 28 percent of their fruit; six months later they were eating nearly 60 percent. Vegetable consumption jumped from eight percent to 32 percent.
  • In a control school, where the program was not used, no change in fruit or vegetable consumption was noted.
  • Scotland has introduced a modified version of the program in 210 schools in Glasgow, and England is experimenting with the Food Dudes in schools in London and Plymouth. The World Health Organization recently honored Food Dudes with a best practices award.
    "People had assumed that it would be very difficult to make fruits and vegetables appealing to children, but Food Dudes has proven that that's not true," said Dr. Francesco Branca, WHO's European adviser for nutrition and food security, who is not involved in the Food Dudes program.
  • In 2005, the government announced it would ban school cafeterias from serving poor-quality hamburgers and hot dogs. From this September, vending machines selling soft drinks, chocolate bars and potato chips to students will be outlawed. The poor quality of school food first rose to the national consciousness thanks to Oliver's TV series "Jamie's School Dinners," which shocked Britons by showing them exactly what kids were eating at school.
  • Changing food habits isn't easy. Humans are genetically predisposed to prefer sugary and fatty foods - an evolutionary twist that made sense in prehistoric times but not anymore.
    "Back when we lived in caves and children were crawling in forests, anything that tasted sweet was generally safe to eat," said Paul Sacher, a dietitian at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. High-fat foods were also desirable because they were good sources of energy. "Today, evolutionary tendencies are actually our worst enemy," said Sacher. "We're beyond the stage where we have to be that careful, yet we still have this natural desire for sweet things."

No comments: