Young adults can be motivated to eat more servings of fruits and vegetables if they are exposed to tailored, practical messages about nutrition, a University of Wisconsin-Madison nutritional scientist announced at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C.
"Even though young adults are incredibly busy, they still want to know what they can do to improve their health," says Susan Nitzke, a professor at UW-Madison's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Nitzke is the lead investigator of a multistate collaborative project that aimed to improve fruit and vegetable consumption among economically disadvantaged young adults.
Newer guidelines for good health recommend eating nine or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, but when the study began, the guidelines called for at least five servings, Nitzke says. However, even if you count French fries and pizza sauce, many people fall short of the more modest goal, let alone the new standards. And with obesity quickly becoming one of the biggest health problems in America and elsewhere in the world, the question of how to change behavior becomes critical, she says.
"People who don't eat many fruits and vegetables often cite reasons like inconvenience and a lack of knowledge about how to use fresh ingredients. However, it becomes particularly difficult for economically disadvantaged individuals because of the perception that fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive," Nitzke says.
Over the course of two years, Nitzke and her team conducted three rounds of interviews with more than 1,200 low-income young adults between the ages of 18 and 24. In between interviews, some study participants received phone calls and materials that were tailored to their readiness to make dietary changes. Others received a standard pamphlet and no personal contact, other than telephone interviews. The results, says Nitzke, were clear.
"The participants who received the tailored intervention progressed in their ability to eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables a day, while no such progress was made in the group that got only standard information," she says. Nutritional information for young adults must be brief and practical, Nitzke notes. In addition, her team found it helpful to identify how ready each participant was to make dietary changes. "We were then able to use that information to tailor educational messages to their specific interests," she explains.
For example, someone who had not given much thought to eating healthier might need basic information about the importance of good nutrition, while someone who already knows why eating healthy is important might make better use of quick and easy recipes that use fresh fruits and vegetables.
Nitzke's team included researchers and cooperative extension specialists from Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. The two-year study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.