Preschoolers who watched a short video of kids eating bell peppers later ate more of the vegetables themselves, the researchers reported in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
They also presented their findings this month at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in Washington, D.C.
The difference in consumption was not immediate, however. Instead, a week after seeing the video, the children ate about 16 grams of bell pepper (about half an ounce, or a little less than 1/8 of a cup). Kids who hadn’t seen the video only ate about 6 g.
“The DVD segment we assembled was 7.5 minutes in length, and after just one exposure the preschoolers increased vegetable consumption one week later. So a brief DVD exposure . . . between children’s TV programming, or during a transition time at daycare before snack or meal time, (may) influence children to make healthier food choices,” Amanda Staiano, at Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who led the study, told Reuters Health by email.
Staiano’s team randomly assigned 42 youngsters, ages three to five, to watch either the video of other children eating bell pepper, or a video on brushing teeth or no video at all.
The next day, those who watched the veggie video actually ate less bell pepper than the others. But one week later, after accounting for the amount of bell pepper that each child ate on day one, the veggie video group’s consumption was higher and the difference was statistically significant, the researchers found.
“This indicates that the children retained the positive experience of watching peers eating the vegetable and were able to reproduce that action one week later,” Staiano says.
Childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And one of the CDC’s recommendations to combat the rise is to eat more servings of vegetables.
The children in the video may serve as ambassadors for healthier eating.
“The kids were positively influenced by their peers through role modeling of healthy behaviors,” says Amy Yaroch, executive director of the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition in Omaha, Nebraska, who was not involved in the research.
“We know from behavioral theory that role modeling is an effective strategy to get people (including young kids) to adopt healthy behaviors. Parents typically serve as role models, but peers can be a very strong influence as well, especially if they are viewed as ‘cool’ by their peers,” Yaroch says.
Staiano and her team still have several questions they’d like to investigate, including how to increase the effect and whether repeated video exposure could convince a kid to choose a vegetable over candy.
“Figuring out ways to make screen-time into healthy time is critical for our young children, who are expected to have shorter lifespans than their parents due to obesity-related diseases,” Staiano says.