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Boost Healthy Eating by Adding Incentives, Competition for Kids

Update Date: Oct 06, 2014 11:14 AM EDT

Childhood obesity is a serious disease that can increase children's future risk of health conditions. In order to prevent obesity, teaching children how to eat healthier is vital. In a new study, researchers tested the effectiveness of using incentives in promoting healthy eating and found that these incentives can increase the number of fruits and vegetables that young children eat every week.

"Our study looked at ways in which we can better target interventions that change young people's eating habits in favor of them choosing and eating more fruit and vegetables," Dr. Jonathan James from the Department of Economics, explained. "Through our research we found that introducing an element of competition at lunchtime could have larger effects on children's eating habits than using an incentive scheme that was based only on their own choices. By using a different approach, we found that the proportion of children trying fruit and vegetables could be increased by up to a third."

For this study, the researchers from the Universities of Bath, Edinburgh and Essex recruited over 600 students in years two and five from 31 schools. The students were randomly divided into three different types of groups. The first group was an individual based incentive program, the second was a competition based incentive program and the last was the control group.

In the incentive programs, children were awarded a sticker each time they picked fruit or vegetables or brought fruit or vegetables for lunch. In the first group, each child was given a highlighter if they collected four or more stickers by the end of the week. In the second group, children were divided into groups of four. The child who collected the most stickers within the group by the end of the week received an additional reward. In the control group, there were no incentives for eating fruits or vegetables.

The researchers discovered that even though boys responded very well to both forms of incentives, girls responded significantly better to the competition based incentive program. The team stated that in the competition groups, girls, who generally eat healthier than boys, ended up consuming even more fruits and vegetables. The researchers believe that using incentives, even though they can be controversial, can help children develop better eating habits.

"Using incentives, particularly with children, is often controversial. Yet many parents use incentives to encourage positive behavior from their children." Professor Michèle Belot, of the University of Edinburgh, stated according to Medical Xpress. "Our research shows that certain incentives do work, and in particular work for groups of children that typically respond little or not at all to other health-promoting interventions, such as boys and children from poorer backgrounds."

The paper, "Incentives and Children's Dietary Choices: A Field Experiment in Primary Schools," can be accessed here.

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