Researchers discover unexpected support in promoting healthy eating habits in children: iPads and Anime.

A video featuring a young man with tousled brown hair depicts him wearing a plain white t-shirt, smiling with lightning flashing in the background. 

“Hi, I’m Max, also known as Muscle Max,” he announces. “Wondering how I achieved my fitness? Well, it’s all about regular exercise and consuming protein from sources like meats, beans, and milk.”

Muscle Max is a character from “Body Quest: Food of the Warrior,” developed by a group at Auburn University affiliated with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. This initiative focuses on preventing obesity in elementary school children. Muscle Max is part of a group of six anime-inspired characters introduced to schools in Rhode Island as part of a study led by Kate Balestracci at the University of Rhode Island (URI).

Balestracci oversees the SNAP-Ed program at URI, which provides nutrition education under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). She also manages the Children, Youth, and Families at Risk (CYFAR) program, another USDA initiative at URI.

The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior recently published an article summarizing the quantitative findings from Balestracci’s USDA-funded research. The study, conducted over three years, introduced weekly hour-long classes, a replacement for traditional health classes, in six Rhode Island schools. While specific schools remain unnamed, they are reported to belong to economically challenged districts.

The study involved 242 third graders in the control group that received standard education and 217 third graders in the intervention group exposed to the “Body Quest” curriculum. This program is part of Alabama’s SNAP-Ed initiative, Live Well Alabama, offering materials, activities, and an iPad app with games promoting healthy eating habits.

In a recent interview, Balestracci mentioned that the research has been ongoing since 2015 to 2018, highlighting the time taken to publish the articles. An earlier qualitative study published in 2019 included interviews with the participating third graders.

Regarding data collection, student surveys included queries like “How often did you consume sugary beverages yesterday?” and “How frequent were your salty snack consumption between meals yesterday?” Results revealed a reduction in sugary drinks and salty snacks intake while fruit consumption increased. However, vegetable and sweet snack consumption showed minimal change.

“Kids are more inclined to swap salty snacks for healthier options than sweet snacks, which are often treated as desserts,” Balestracci explained.

The latest research on Rhode Island third graders’ eating habits, conducted under URI’s Community Nutrition Office, was authored by Kate Balestracci. This study was supported by USDA funding. (University of Rhode Island)

Progression with School Meals:

Although Balestracci’s study is not recent, its relevance was evident during a meeting hosted by the Rhode Island House Committee on Finance. The discussion primarily revolved around Rep. Justine Caldwell’s proposal for universal free school meals for all public school students, irrespective of income. Noteworthily, both intervention and control schools had approximately 90% eligibility for subsidized meals.

Geoffrey Greene, a co-author with Balestracci at URI, expressed support for Caldwell’s bill. His research indicated that home-packed lunches generally contain less nutritious items compared to school meals following strict guidelines mandated by the Healthy Schools Coalition in Rhode Island.

Explaining further, Balestracci discussed the challenges of regulating snacking habits outside of school, emphasizing the lack of control over corner store purchases that may not align with healthy options.

Balestracci acknowledged the difficulty in encouraging convenience stores to offer fresh produce alongside popular snack items like chips and candies due to supply chain limitations and repercussions on small businesses.

The study acknowledged its inability to account for weekend eating habits, a potential aspect not covered by weekday observations. Balestracci noted that individuals’ eating behaviors may differ significantly during weekends, making it a distinct scenario.

Utilizing an adapted version of the “Body Quest” curriculum, the URI researchers aimed to address the consumption of sugary drinks and energy-dense snacks, emphasizing the importance beyond fruit and vegetable intake.

“While promoting fruits and vegetables is essential, it cannot fully replace other dietary aspects,” Balestracci emphasized.

As of late February, information on “Body Quest” was accessible on the SNAP-Ed national website, but the page displayed an error by March 13. Attempts to reach out to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the national SNAP-Ed office remained unanswered, but the program’s materials are still accessible online. The iPad app is also available on Apple’s App Store.

The revised curriculum maintained the presence of Trans Fat Cat, a character intended to depict imprudent dietary choices rather than villainy in “Body Quest.”

Change is feasible, even for selective eaters.

“I remember when I disliked eating yogurt as a child, but now I enjoy finishing a whole cup of it,” shared a student from the 2019 qualitative study.

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