Letting kids help with gardening may sow the seeds of a lifelong healthy eating habit, according to new research.
College students who gardened as a kid, or were currently gardeners, ate more fruits and vegetables than their peers without a green thumb, researchers at the University of Florida found.
"This finding is particularly relevant, given the recent popularity of school gardens and farm-to-school projects," the study's lead author, Anne Mathews, said in a school news release. She is an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
This study is part of a larger effort by researchers from several US universities to get college students to eat healthier foods. The new programme is dubbed the "Get Fruved" (Get Your Fruits and Vegetables) project. The investigators are analysing which variables influence the eating habits of teens and young adults.
To explore how participation in school gardening projects affected students' long-term eating habits, Mathews and her colleagues surveyed over 1,300 college students.
The participants were divided into four groups: those who gardened in childhood; those who currently gardened; those who gardened in childhood and still do; and, those who never gardened at all.
The study found that 30 percent of the students gardened as a child, and 38 percent currently gardened. These students ate 2.9 cups of fruits and vegetables daily – about a half a cup more than their peers who never gardened, the study showed.
"We found that if your parents gardened but you did not, just watching them did not make a difference in how much fruits and vegetables you eat in college. Hands-on experience seems to matter," said Mathews.
The findings should encourage schools to offer gardening lessons or a group programme that exposes young children to the activity. Doing so could encourage students to maintain healthy eating habits later in life and perhaps help curb rates of childhood obesity, the study authors suggested.
The findings were published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The report is also expected to be presented next month at the annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Exhibition in Boston.