Helping preschoolers eat healthy can help combat childhood obesity

Helping preschoolers eat healthy can help combat childhood obesity

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preschool kids reading book
Dipti Dev and her team teach preschoolers about eating healthy through an innovative research-based curriculum.

Nebraska ranks 5th nationally in childhood obesity.

One of the ways Dipti Dev and her team are working to prevent childhood obesity is through an innovative, research-based curriculum to help children eat healthy foods.

Obesity prevention needs to start in early childhood, said Dev, Nebraska Extension child health behaviors specialist. That is why her research focuses on children ages 2 to 5 in childcare settings, where many young children spend the majority of their day.

I am very passionate because I feel that I can improve the lives of young children. Dipti Dev

"Children develop their likes and dislikes of food early," she said. If preschoolers are offered a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grain, dairy, and lean protein foods while in childcare and enjoy them, they are more likely to eat healthier foods as teenagers and adults.

The curriculum, Ecological Approach to (EAT)-Family Style Dining, focuses on improving the childcare mealtime environment and family engagement. Childcare providers sit and eat meals together with the children. The children select their own portions and serve themselves, which, research indicates, makes children more likely to try new foods and to eat based on their hunger cues.

The curriculum includes engaging videos that illustrate seven topics. Extension educators serve as "coaches" for the childcare providers.

lessons for preschoolers to eat healthy

Assistant professor in Child, Youth and Family Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Dev is nationally known for her obesity prevention work. She has received several grants, including a USDA grant to implement the curriculum statewide and evaluate its effectiveness.

Through the grant, Dev is also working with collaborators in the College of Engineering and the Raikes School of Computer Science to develop a Sensi-Plate that will measure a child's food consumption electronically. This plate will serve as an objective method to evaluate the impact of childhood obesity prevention programs.

"Two of the primary reasons for obesity are an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity," Dev said. "By improving the nutrition and physical activity environment and paying attention to children from low-income families and rural contexts, we can promote children's healthy behaviors."

Her research underscores the role of childcare providers in shaping children's healthy behaviors and improving the nutrition and physical activity environment.

Dev is the recipient of the 2017 National USDA Family Life and Human Development State Extension Specialist Early Achievement Award.

4-H programs focus on making healthy food choices

preschoolers being taught healthy eating habits at mealtime
A Nebraska Extension program focuses on preventing childhood obesity by working with childcare providers and parents to develop healthy eating habits in preschoolers.

Nebraska 4-H has a variety of programs that focus on healthy living, including nutrition, diet, food preparation and making healthy choices.

Of youth in these programs…

  • 89 percent said they know the value of a healthy diet.
  • 85 percent reported plans to encourage their families to eat meals together.
  • 84 percent of youth in the iCook afterschool program reported that by participating they learned that they really liked to cook.
  • 87 percent of those participating in the Food Smart Families program said they learned what makes a balanced diet, and 91 percent reported learning how to make healthier food.