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Repetition, role modelling and rewards can help tackle fussy eaters, study finds

Children's unhealthy eating habits can be easily improved through a process of repetition, role modelling and rewards, according to research.

The system increased a child's intake of vegetables and by the end of the 14-day study children aged two to four who were involved in the 'three R's' system ate an average of 4g of the vegetable, compared to 0.6g before the start of the investigation.  

This involved repeatedly exposing a child to a certain food (repetition), eating it first and show them how tasty it is (role modeling) and praising them for trying it (rewards), and could be useful for parents of obese children.  

The research was carried out by Aston and Loughborough Universities and Dr Claire Farrow, of the Aston Research Centre for Child Health, said: “Not eating enough fruits and vegetables is one of the main risk factors for global mortality. Eating more fruits and vegetables could prevent numerous cancers, stroke, diabetes and obesity. Children in the UK, however, do not eat enough of them - with only about 20% of them achieving the recommended five-a-day.

“It can be very challenging for families to encourage their children to eat a healthy, balanced diet as children naturally go through stages during their toddler years when they are often fussy and will refuse new foods, particularly vegetables. This is a normal developmental stage for children, but it can often lead to a restricted diet as children become fussier and fussier about what they will not eat," she said.

One of Secretary of state Jeremy Hunt's key priorities for the next five years is childhood obesity, last month at a London conference he said it is a "great scandal" that one in five children leave primary school clinically obese and "we absolutely need to do something about that”.

Farrow said: "Families need evidence-based scientific advice about what they can do to help encourage children to taste, and eventually like, new or disliked fruits and vegetables. Eating behaviours have been shown to track throughout childhood and into adulthood - so it is vitally important that children are exposed to fruits and vegetables early in life to inform healthy eating as they grow into adolescence and adulthood.”