Better measuring children’s eating patterns, better tracks healthy eating

Better measuring children’s eating patterns, better tracks healthy eating

The issue:

Healthy eating has historically been rather difficult to measure in children. It’s difficult for young children to remember what they eat, and they are often unsure about what they report. Measurement of eating is vital because we can’t understand behavior without being able to accurately measure it, and if we can’t understand behavior, we can’t improve it.


Using advanced statistical techniques on data from our third-grade Shaping Up My Choices program, researchers found a consistent pattern in the way that children consume milk, vegetables, fruit, and 100% fruit juice. While none of these foods represent a healthy diet on their own, combining all of these foods based on the pattern observed in our data gives a more comprehensive description of healthy eating. This study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.


Because a pattern has been found in the way children eat these foods, it allows researchers to use statistical procedures that combine children’s consumption of each food type. Doing so provides a much more comprehensive description of children’s healthy eating behaviors than measuring any single food type that they have eaten.

What this means for our Children:

As a result of our research, the fields of psychology and nutrition science now have an improved way of measuring healthy eating. This tool helps researchers refine their work in order to reveal new findings that may not have been observable in the past. New findings can lead to new nutrition research opportunities and ways to better analyze outcomes.


Larsen AL, McArdle JJ, Robertson T, Dunton GF. Four Dietary Subscales of the School Physical Activity and Nutrition (SPAN) Questionnaire Form a Robust Latent Variable Measuring Healthy Eating Patterns. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Research Brief. Published online January 30, 2015.