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‘Nudges’ try to help college students live healthier

GAINESVILLE, Fla. —  Internet lessons and “tailored” text alerts can help some young people adopt healthier lifestyles, according to a national study aimed at preventing weight gain.

Although experimental group students didn’t gain or lose more weight than their control group counterparts, researchers remain hopeful the Internet-message approach can work because it helped college students progress from what researchers call the “contemplative stage” to the “action stage.”

An example of the contemplative stage would be someone who’s thinking about trying to eat fatty foods less frequently, but hasn’t taken action to do so, while someone at the action stage would choose to eat a salad, instead.

In the study, students aged 18-24 received individually targeted messages. Some students were in the “pre-contemplative” stage; others fell into the “action” stage, while others were in various stages between those two.

The study, published online last week in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, found more students who received the Web messages ate more fruits and vegetables and were more physically active than those in the control group.

Researchers weren’t as concerned about students losing weight as they were with giving them strategies to lead healthier lives to prevent weight gain, said Karla Shelnutt, a University of Florida assistant professor in family, youth and community sciences.

Researchers remain optimistic about the model because they’re targeting their messages – what they refer to, collectively, as an “intervention” ─ to students’ readiness to live healthier lives.

“If your intervention resulted in a switch from pre-contemplation to contemplation, that’s a success because you’re closer to that behavior change because you’ve learned about the importance of fruits and vegetables,” said Shelnutt, an Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences faculty member.

Known as Project YEAH – Young Adults Eating and Active for Health – 1,639 students at 13 universities, including UF, participated in the 15-month study. They were split, 824 in the experimental group that received the targeted messages, and 815 who didn’t get messages.

During the study, participants received a combined 21 digital lessons and “nudges” to remind them to stay on task, Shelnutt said.

One such “nudge” would be to “focus on fruit and vary your veggies.” For those in the pre-contemplative stage, the message was: “Did you know that more tomatoes are consumed in the U.S. than any other single fruit or vegetable? Tomatoes contain lycopene, which helps your body prevent cancer.” For those in the “contemplative/preparation” stage, the message was: “Focus on varying your fruit and veggies. Does your plate look like a rainbow?”

Students were assessed at the start of the study, after three months of emails and web lessons and again after 15 months. Researchers found students who received the messages ate 0.2 cups more fruits and vegetables daily, and females did a bit more rigorous physical activity than those in the control group.

Kendra Kattelmann, a nutrition professor at South Dakota State University, led the study.

With more such studies in the future, including a student-developed social marketing campaign, Kattelmann’s group wants to help people aged 18 to 24 who are at high risk to gain weight because they eat more fatty foods, don’t get enough sleep or exercise, drink more alcohol and smoke more. These tendencies put overweight people in this age group at higher risk for obesity by their mid-30s.

students running

Students run up the bleachers at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on the University of Florida campus.