Young adults who learn to cook eat more vegetables

Aug. 12, 2022 — “Be careful what you eat” is a common refrain, but a new study shows that eating what you see may be an effective way to improve one’s diet.

Researchers in Kentucky found that college students who set weight loss goals and watched cooking videos ate more fruits and vegetables over time.

Obesitygreatly increases the risk for many diseases and is often a problem among young people, who often choose fast food and other less healthy options, says Carol S. O’Neal, PhD, associate professor at the University of Louisville and author main study.

Previous research has shown that what is known as social cognitive theory, which states that we are all influenced by our environment, and setting goals to improve health can improve young people’s eating habits. But the addition of video technology as a new educational tool has not been well studied, O’Neal and colleagues write in Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Methods and Results

In the study, 138 college students ages 18 to 40 participated in a 15-week course at a large metropolitan university. The course included lectures on health topics, such as carbohydrates, and included skill-based activities, such as how to read an ingredients list. Students and instructors then discussed how these skills can lead to healthier eating and help them meet nutrition goals, such as eating more whole grains.

A total of 77 students completed the study in person and 61 participated online. The majority (59%) were college sophomores, 74% were white, and 82% were female.

Students took weekly food challenges to use what they had learned on how to develop better eating habits and behaviors. Along with the challenges, students watched cooking videos related to each week’s theme, such as how to make overnight oats for healthy carb/whole grain week.

Students also chose two goals each week — such as choosing whole-grain foods to increase fiber, using smaller plates for portion control, choosing unsalted nuts for snacks or adding a salad to a meal – from a list of 10-15 goals. The idea was to set goals that were specific, measurable, realistic and time-bound. They also wrote weekly reflections to track their progress.

The main outcomes were eating more fruit and vegetables, improved healthy cooking and eating, and improved attitudes about healthy cooking and eating. The researchers surveyed the students to see if these results were achieved.

The students in the study said they achieved the goal of eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day more often than before, the researchers said.

At the end of the course, students showed significant increases in the number of fruits and vegetables they ate and in their belief that they could eat more produce, cook and use more fruit, vegetables and spices than salt in cooking.

In their written reflections, students indicated positive changes in their behavior, such as planning meals before shopping, preparing meals in advance on the weekends, taking lunch to school and using herbs and spices, the researchers noted.

“This model can be used to address a variety of health outcomes in diet, health education and community health programs,” says O’Neal. “I see time as a major barrier, but this barrier can be reduced for populations that are able to use online learning. Our intervention was successful for both in-person and online learning.”

Real world usage

“For consumers, the real-world implications are exciting,” says M. Susan Jay, MD, of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

“People are increasingly trying to eat healthy, and although clinicians want to influence healthy eating, limited office visits may not be conducive to behavior change,” she says.

The study was important as a way to identify ways to improve the diet and nutrition of young adults, says Margaret Thew, DNP, a nurse practitioner and medical director of adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin.

That the study led students to eat more fruits and vegetables isn’t surprising, since the students in the study may have been more motivated to improve their diets, Thew says. But she was surprised to see the significant improvement in cooking attitudes after the intervention.

“This tells me that we need to provide more opportunities to educate young people about how to cook to improve dietary outcomes,” she says.

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