"While Cookie Monster is an engaging figure, we felt there was an opportunity there to really model healthy eating," said Jorge Baxter, regional director for Latin America for Sesame Workshop.
The new message is that certain things like cookies are "something you can eat sometimes, but there are some foods that you can eat all the time," like vegetables, he said. The healthy messages have been gradually incorporated into the television show, and its producers even made a doctor Muppet — Dr. Ruster (pronounced "Rooster") — in Fuster's image for the preschool project.
It launched in Colombia because U.S. schools that Fuster approached years ago were reluctant, but a wealthy family's foundation was willing to sponsor the experiment in Bogota.
It involved 1,216 children and 928 parents from 14 preschools. Some were given the program and others served as a comparison group.
Kids had training on healthy habits and how the body works for an hour a day for five months using Sesame Workshop-produced videos, a board game (the "heart game"), songs, posters and activities. Parents were involved through take-home assignments and workshops that focused on overcoming barriers to good food and exercise. For example, in areas with poor access to parks or play spaces, parents were coached to encourage kids to use stairs instead of elevators and to walk instead of taking a bus.
Children's weight and exercise habits were measured at the start and 1 1/2 and 3 years later. Although many moved or dropped out by the time the study ended, researchers documented a significant increase in knowledge, attitude and health habit scores among kids in the program versus the comparison group.
The proportion of children at a healthy weight increased from 62 percent at the start to 75 percent at three years for those in the program. Ironically, in Colombia, that mostly meant that more undernourished kids grew to reach a healthy weight.