What Makes Nutrition Education Programs Effective
Children tend to eat foods because they like them and to refuse foods they don’t like (or think they won’t like). So what leads us to eat some foods and not others? Scientists who study these things have identified four major influences on food choices:
- Biological factors some interesting research is looking at whether the foods that mothers eat while pregnant program children to prefer those foods as they get older. And about 25 percent of the population carries a gene that makes certain tastes such as bitter unbearable. While this presents a challenge when trying to get some children to eat bitter vegetables—usually the green ones—sensitivity to bitterness does lessen somewhat as people get older.
- Experience with food in a social context. While we are born with certain taste preferences, choosing what to eat and how to eat it is a learned behavior. Children overcome their fears of new foods through repeated exposures in the company of family members or other supportive adults. Generally speaking, children require 10 to 15 exposures to a new food before they find it acceptable to eat. Older children and adults can also learn to enjoy new foods over time.
- Personal factors including knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, skills, and the influence of families and friends.
- Environmental factors such as the availability, accessibility, and affordability of food items, eating locations, the social environment and cultural food practices, and food advertising.
Given the many influences on food choices, it isn’t surprising that nutrition education programs aimed solely at increasing individuals’ knowledge have failed to help children and adults adopt healthier eating behaviors. Nutrition education experts now agree that effective nutrition education programs include1:
- a focus on specific behaviors (e.g., shopping for vegetables using WIC benefits), rather than knowledge (e.g., food sources of vitamins)
- active participation on the part of the learners
- taking into account the motivations, needs, interests, perceptions, and desires of particular population groups
- self-assessment and feedback
- addressing change at both the individual and environmental levels.
Additional characteristics of effective adolescent and child nutrition education programs in K-12 school-based settings include2:
- sufficient time and intensity of the intervention (50 hours of nutrition education is considered the minimum necessary to effect behavior change)
- coherent and clearly focused curricula
- family involvement
- professional development for staff (support from school administrators and teacher training both positively impact nutrition education efforts in schools).
Motivations for diet-related behavior changes differ by a child’s stage of cognitive development. The food choices of preschool and young elementary school children are driven by food preferences and availability. Nutrition education programs for these children should focus on helping children become familiar with healthy foods, for example through taste tests, and ensuring that families and schools offer these foods to the children. Older children find motivation in the influence of their peers, being able to set goals, having a sense of autonomy and competence, and their interest in health outcomes.
All of the federal nutrition assistance programs include efforts to promote healthy eating and active lifestyles. The Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) in USDA provides guidance, resources, and funding to State agencies for administering quality nutrition education programs. Much of the focus of USDA nutrition education is directed toward mothers (WIC) and children (school or care-based programs).
Nutrition education in WIC has two broad goals: (1) to emphasize the relationship between nutrition, physical activity, and health, especially for pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children under age 5, and (2) to assist women and children at nutritional risk to improve their health status by making changes in dietary and physical activity habits. Breastfeeding promotion is integral to the WIC program and has received significant funding for initiatives including the development of peer counseling and training and technical assistance for WIC staff. The WIC Works Resource System provides online training, guidance, and resources for all areas of WIC nutrition education programming.
Team Nutrition is the USDA nutrition education initiative for child nutrition programs, comprising foodservice training and technical assistance, nutrition education programs for children and their caregivers and childcare providers, and support for school and community wellness activities. Additional USDA resources to promote healthy eating and physical activity are available through the Healthy Meals Resource System and National Food Service Management Institute. Studies have shown that children are unlikely to accept healthier school meals in the absence of nutrition education coordinated with the menu changes.