Poster Paper: Effective Behavioral Economic Tools for Influencing Long-Term Nutrition Choices in School Children

Sunday, April 9, 2017
University of California, Riverside

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sydney Ganon, Hiroto Iwaoka, Jonathan McIlroy and Sarah M White, University of California, Los Angeles

Current traditional nutrition education in public schools is not, overall, an effective method to change the eating behaviors of students and to increase their health outcomes. This is especially true given the required budget to implement any meaningful programs. Across the country, 68% of states require public schools to offer nutrition education as part of general health instruction for elementary schools and California is one of those states. While the most recent version of The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requires all schools to have a wellness policy for their students, it does not specifically require nutrition education as part of said policy.

Our preliminary research concludes that traditional nutrition education in public schools does not result in increased consumption of healthy foods or increased positive attitudes towards healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables. This conclusion has been drawn previously and we build off the work done most notably by Dudley et al. (2015). Given that traditional nutrition education is not an effective method to create behavior change around healthy eating habits, it alone cannot be an effective method to fight childhood obesity. Given that the traditional nutrition education is not effective, what tools could and should be utilized to create behavior change in students?

Today, 38% of adults in the US are obese and another 33% are overweight, with statistically significant differences between ethnicities. In addition, 17% of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese. That percentage is higher among adolescents (20.5% of 12-19 year olds) compared to young children (8.9% of 2-5 year olds). Also concerning is the high prevalence of childhood obesity for Hispanics (21.9%) and non-Hispanic blacks (19.5) compared to non-Hispanic whites (14.7%). Obese children are also more likely to become obese adults and to be exposed to the health risks associated with obesity.

Reducing obesity in children is incredibly important not simply because of significant social stigmas surrounding obesity, but because of the comorbidities, or diseases that frequently co-occur or are associated with obesity. Comorbidities include but are not limited to: hypertension, cholesterol problems, Type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and mental illness. Not only does obesity have serious consequences for an individual’s personal health, but also for our nation’s economy with higher medical, job productivity, transportation, and human capital costs.

When considering the relevance of behavior change on obesity, research has found that consumption of fruits and vegetables in childhood is inversely associated with metabolic syndrome (obesity’s comorbidities, such as diabetes, hypertension, blood pressure) as an adult, even after taking into account vegetable consumption as an adult. There is an opportunity in public schools to significantly influence students’ health in the short and long-term, but it is not being taken fully advantage of. With this in mind, our research question is: What behavioral economic tools are the most effective to use in the fight against childhood obesity using nutrition education in public schools