Many Americans know that good eating habits are an important part of overall health. But even when you count french fries and pizza sauce as vegetables, most young adults fall short of recommendations to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Improving dietary habits of this age group has important benefits: a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and some types of cancer, as well as lower long-term health care costs.
To improve nutrition education campaigns targeted at 18- to 24-year olds, a University of Wisconsin-Madison nutritional scientist is leading a 10-state study that will examine the barriers to healthy eating and test a strategy to overcome them. Study participants will come from across the nation, including about 200 individuals from south-central Wisconsin.
According to the study’s leader, Susan Nitzke of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, young adults are a very important group because they are establishing adult behavior patterns that will affect their health later in life. Also, as future parents and adult role models, they will affect the eating habits of the next generation of children.
But young adults are a challenging group to work with, as they have hectic schedules and don’t always think that nutrition is important, explains Nitzke. “Most of the young adult studies in the past have been of college students,” she adds, “but our study focuses on economically disadvantaged 18- to 24-year olds, both in and out of college.”
The $2 million, four-year project, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, is one of the first major research projects to involve a multi-state team of researchers and community-based educators. The study”s findings will have practical applications for educators, such as county Extension agents and public health workers, who are trying to change the eating habits of young adults.
The researchers will track how participants think about nutrition and whether they improve their eating habits over the course of the study, based on surveys conducted before, during and after an educational campaign. Using an approach that targets individuals, researchers will try to understand participants” beliefs about nutrition and determine if specific messages based on those beliefs can lead to better eating habits.
After the initial surveys, educators will provide newsletters, a magazine and educational phone calls to each participant, with the content determined by the participant”s eating habits and beliefs about nutrition. For example, someone who does not pay much attention to nutrition would receive personalized information about why eating healthy is important, Nitzke explains. A participant who already understands that fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy diet would get more practical advice, such as how to store produce at home.
“We expect that some techniques will prove to be more useful than others, and that the campaign will be more effective for people with certain behaviors and attitudes than for others,” Nitzke says. “We will then use behavior theories to help us translate our findings into a specific set of recommendations to help educators reach this target audience.”
Other states participating in the study are Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island.