Starting out Strong: Inspiring Lifelong Dietary Habits in Preschoolers

By Sandra Clark

July 18, 2018

Preschoolers eating fruit in company of an adult

Increasing overweight and obesity rates can pave the way for a host of serious chronic diseases, but researchers in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences have found a way to potentially diminish this risk early on – as early as preschool.   

Prof. Alison Duncan, graduate student Julia Mirotta and the Guelph Family Health Study team assessed different types of interventions for families and found that when families were visited at home rather than simply emailed health and nutrition information, their children significantly increased their fruit and fibre intakes. Because overweight and obesity in childhood is likely to translate to overweight and obesity in adulthood, uncovering effective interventions at a very young age is key to prevention.

“This is a crucial time-period in life when we have a unique opportunity to create lifelong habits that optimize health,” says Duncan.

The Guelph Family Health Study is a long-term, community-based study focussed on improving health outcomes in families with children 18 months to five years old. Led by experts in nutrition, epidemiology, dietetics and biostatistics at the University of Guelph, the initiative launched in 2014 with a pilot study to see whether a home-based intervention focussed on obesity prevention could be feasible to test on a larger scale.

Participating families were randomly assigned to one of three different interventions that took place over a six-month period: two home visits from a registered dietitian while receiving weekly emails specific to their family’s health goals, four home visits along with the same tailored weekly emails, or the control intervention of simply being emailed general health information, with no home visits.

The study assessed many health outcomes, but Duncan and Mirotta’s analysis focused on what these interventions meant for the children’s dietary intakes. They found that the children of families who had two home visits ate significantly more fruit than the control group, but when the number of home visits increased to four, children consumed greater amounts of both fruit and fibre compared to the control group. Because increases in fruit and fibre intake are very positive changes in the diets of children, this home-based intervention shows a promising future.  

“Seeing these results is great, as even small changes in nutrition for the better can be meaningful,” says Duncan. “This pilot data really provides us with a stepping stone to grow the Guelph Family Health Study.”

As the Guelph Family Health Study expands, Duncan and the team will build on their results by collecting data from even more families and answering even more questions about how to optimize health at the family level.  But with the pilot study already generating valuable and exciting insights, it is clear that the Guelph Family Health Study has enormous potential to help improve the long-term health and well-being of Canadians.

This research was funded by the Health for Life Initiative at the University of Guelph.


Read the full article in the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research.

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