NUTRITION
November 12, 2013

Nutrition in Three Easy Classes

It takes surprisingly little to help people shop smarter and eat better. We could probably all use a tune-up.

Sometimes simple changes can make a huge difference. Take eating healthfully for example. Stories about computer programs and weight-loss apps may get a lot of attention, but one study of lower income families has found that simply helping people learn better ways to shop and prepare foods at home can make a healthy difference in their diets.

People who are working long hours or hold down two jobs may not feel they have the time to shop and cook a healthy meal. Eating cheaply often means eating highly processed, store-bought foods or grabbing fast foods on the go. Nutrition classes can help, but they, too, take time.

The women learned how to shop on the outer edges of the store rather than the center aisles, which are typically home to unhealthier, processed foods.

That's why University of Minnesota researchers wanted to see how little it would take to improve nutrition. They recruited 118 women of ethnically diverse backgrounds and of lower socioeconomic status and asked them to come to three classes that covered a host of nutrition how-to’s.

In the first class the participants learned how to set up a meal plan and how to budget for a month of food shopping, even with food stamps. It taught them how to shop for more nutritious and colorful foods by focusing on the outer edges of the store rather than the center aisles, which are typically home to unhealthier, processed foods and introduced the women to general information on micronutrients. The women also took a taste-test to drive home the benefits of less expensive generic, as opposed to brand name, foods.

The next class focused on teaching the women healthier ways to cook — steaming food instead of frying it, and adding spices instead of salt — and offered tips on ways to avoid overeating, such as not eating in front of the TV.

The third and final class suggested ways to make healthy foods less expensive, growing herbs on the windowsill, for example, and joining community gardens or food coops.

By the end of the three sessions, women in the study were much more likely to make healthy choices. They cut back on butter as they cooked, used herbs and spices and reduced their use of salt, read nutritional labels when they shopped, and ate more fruits and vegetables.

“Our research shows that with the right teaching experiences, having more classes may not be needed…” study author Chery Smith said in a news release. “This is really important for a group that is hard to reach, has transportation difficulties, and is extremely mobile due to work and housing changes.”

The study didn’t follow the women over the long-term, so it’s hard to know whether the changes will become permanent. But it does show how simple interventions can have a big impact on our behaviors. Methods like these might even make a dent in the obesity crisis.

The study is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

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