ACBS Spotlight: Transforming the Function of Healthy Eating with the Food Dudes

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Obesity is an increasing problem in the developed world for adults, and sadly, children as well. While numerous factors play a part in weight problems, from a behavioral science perspective, the importance of healthy eating behavior patterns in combatting this epidemic is clear.

Food Dudes, a behavioral program designed to increase children's consumption of fruits and vegetables, was originally developed in the UK to and its success helped it win a World Health Organization Best Practice Award. The Food Dudes program applies behavioral principles to:

  • Encourage children to eat fruit and vegetables both at school and at home
  • Shape the liking for fruit and vegetables in children
  • Help children to develop a sense of self as a healthy eater
  • Changes the context of school environments to strongly support healthy eating

Who are the Food Dudes? Think Power Rangers meets Popeye; these pre-teen superheroes eat fruits and vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, raspberries and broccoli) to gain their powers and subsequently combat the Junk Punks who systematically subvert attempts to eat healthy foods.

How does it work? Each day for 16 days (Phase 1), classroom children come together to read a letter or watch a segment of the Food Dudes, and following the program, each child is given a very small portion of fruit and veggies. Small rewards are given at this stage for eating these portions to encourage children to repeatedly taste fruits and vegetables so that they begin to enjoy the taste of the foods. Children are also given a Home Pack, which aims to increase consuming fruit and veggies at home and learn to self-monitor eating these foods at home with the help of parents.

Phase 2 involves self-monitoring of fruit and veggie consumption, and charts children's eating on a wall chart visible to all classmates. The main Dependent Variable? Fruit and vegetables requested from parents and brought from home to consume at school. As they advance in healthy eating patterns, kids earn additional rewards and certificates.

And the evidence? Data from the UK, Ireland, and early data in Italy indicate:

  • Large increases in consumption.
  • The greatest increases in consumption are shown by those children who ate the least at the start i.e., poorest eaters.
  • Increases in consumption are long-lasting.
  • Increases extend across a wide range of fruit and vegetable varieties.
  • The program works for all children aged 2-11 years old.
  • The effects generalise across contexts i.e., school to home.
  • The program is equally effective for boys and girls.
  • Effects are highly reliable, regardless of school location and social deprivation.

ACT Italia, has been instrumental in adapting the Food Dudes program for Italian schoolchildren. And as a Fulbright Scholar, has piloted the Food Dudes in Northern California schools with faculty from California State University at Stanislaus.

In his recent visit to Reno, Nanni reports that the program is showing promising results in expected directions. Anecdotally, Nanni reports that parents love the program and that their kids are actively asking for fruit and vegetables to eat at home as well as to take to school. Fruit and vegetables have also become valuable for lunch-room trades; where previously only junk foods held such status.

It seems that this program has succeeded in changing the function of fruit and vegetables, and has even changed the culture around healthy eating. Good news for the younger generations in developed nations everywhere!

Let's hope that such programs serve to inspire us to continue to bring behavioral principles to affect similarly important world-wide problems that have been resistant to change with traditional methods.

Read other entries in the ACBS Spotlight series here.