Young people who learn to cook eat more vegetables

Aug. 12, 2022 — “Watch what you eat” is a common refrain, but a new study suggests that eating what you watch may be an effective way to improve a person’s diet.

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

adipositysignificantly increases the risk of many diseases and is often a problem for young people who often choose fast food and other less healthy options, says Carol S. O’Neill, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Louisville and lead author of the study.

Previous research has shown that what is called social cognitive theory, which holds 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 is still understudied, O’Neill and his colleagues write Journal of Nutrition and Behavioral Education.

Methods and results

In the study, 138 college students aged 18 to 40 participated in a 15-week course at a major metropolitan university. The course included lectures on health topics such as carbohydrates and included skills-based exercises such as how to read an ingredient list. Students and faculty then discussed how these skills could contribute to healthier eating and help them achieve nutrition goals, such as eating more whole grains.

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

Students completed weekly food challenges to apply what they learned about how to develop better eating habits and behaviors. Along with the assignments, students watched cooking videos related to each week’s topics, such as how to make overnight oats for a healthy carb/whole grain week.

Students also chose two goals each week — such as choosing whole grains to increase fiber, using smaller plates for portion control, choosing unsalted nuts for snacks or adding salad to meals — from a list of 10 to 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 consumption of more fruit and vegetables, improved cooking and healthy eating, and improved attitudes towards healthy cooking and eating. The researchers interviewed the students to see if these results were achieved.

Students who participated in the study said they met their 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, the students showed a significant increase in the amount of fruit and vegetables they ate, as well as in their own belief that they could eat more produce, prepare food and use more fruit, vegetables and seasonings instead of salt in cooking.

In their written reflections, the students showed positive changes in their behavior, such as planning meals before shopping, preparing meals ahead of time on the weekend, bringing lunches to school and using herbs and spices, the researchers noted.

“This model can be used to address a variety of health outcomes in nutrition, health education, and public health programs,” says O’Neill. “I see time as a major barrier, but this barrier could be reduced for populations that can benefit from online learning. Our intervention was successful for in-person and online learning.”

Use in the real world

“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 even though clinicians want to influence healthy eating, limited office visits may not lead to behavior change,” she says.

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

That the study resulted in students eating more fruits and vegetables is not surprising, as the students who participated in the study may have been more motivated to improve their diets, Tew says. But she was surprised to see a significant improvement in attitudes toward cooking after the intervention.

“This tells me that we need to offer more opportunities to teach young people how to cook to improve diet outcomes,” she says.

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