Parents Can Sneak Veggies Into Kids' Diet

May 1, 2007

Parents who want their kids to consume fewer calories and eat more vegetables might find a healthy solution with "stealth vegetables." A Penn State study shows that decreasing the calorie density of foods by adding vegetables and other lower-calorie ingredients leads to a reduction in children's calorie intake and an increase in vegetable consumption.

"To combat the epidemic of childhood obesity, the World Health Organization recommends reducing children's consumption of calorie-dense foods. Many children are not eating enough foods that are low in calorie density, such as fruits and vegetables," said Dr. Barbara Rolls, who holds the Helen A. Guthrie chair of nutritional sciences at Penn State's College of Health and Human Development. "Parents often find it difficult to get their kids to eat vegetables."

The researchers developed two variations of pasta, and served the dishes to 61 children between 3-5 years of age on different occasions. One dish had a higher calorie density (1.6 kilocalories per gram), while the second dish was 25 percent lower in calorie density (1.2 kilocalories per gram) and had a larger amount of vegetables.

"We blended broccoli and cauliflower and incorporated it into the pasta sauce," said Kathleen E. Leahy, doctoral candidate and lead author of the study. "The kids could not really tell the difference and ate a consistent weight of pasta."
Leahy and her colleagues Rolls, Leann Birch, Distinguished Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University, and Jennifer Fisher, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, presented their findings today (May 1) at the Experimental Biology Conference in Washington, D.C.

When served the lower-calorie pasta, children consumed 17 percent fewer calories and ate significantly more vegetables, compared to the higher-calorie pasta. Results from preference tests also suggest that for the most part, the children showed no clear preference for either dish.

"The fact that we got the reduction in caloric intake is absolutely great," said Rolls. "And the increase in vegetable intake suggests a strategy for improving diet quality," she added.

Leahy, however, notes that parents should still actively promote the consumption of vegetables by serving them regularly and eating them with their children. "You not only want to increase their vegetable intake but also want to ensure that your kids will acquire a taste for vegetables," she added.

The study was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Editors: For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at (814) 865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.