The road to obesity starts early. If our children aren't going to waddle into adulthood, they need to learn how to eat healthy at a young age.

Enter Bert and Ernie.

A study using Sesame Street characters to improve preschoolers' eating and activity habits found that not only can young children learn to eat better, it can make a profound difference when they do.

Muppets introduce preschoolers to the basics of healthy eating. Three years later, the lessons appear to have stuck.

The study, led by Dr. Valentin Fuster, Director of Mount Sinai Heart and Physician-in-Chief at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, was a five-month pilot program to promote heart health in developing countries. It was a joint effort of Mount Sinai and Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street.

Sesame Street characters introduced heart-healthy ideas and actions to 3-5 year-olds and their parents in several preschools in underprivileged neighborhoods in Bogotá, Colombia.

The study used muppets — Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, Elmo and even a muppet named Dr. Fuster — to introduce preschoolers to the basics of healthy eating.

Kids learned that:

  • You need to love and take care of your body.
  • Colorful fruits and vegetables are everyday foods, while cookies are only sometimes food.
  • Physical activity makes you feel great and is a good way to have fun with your friends.

Three years later, the nearly 600 children and their parents were tested to see if the program had changed any of their habits. And it had. A much higher percentage of children were at a healthy weight. Children's attitudes and heart healthy habits had improved. Parents' knowledge and attitudes also changed for the better, though not as much as their children's did.

Never underestimate the power of a Muppet.

A similar program for 20,000 children has now been started in Spain.

The power of the Muppets hasn't been ignored in the U.S. A 2012 study found that when schoolchildren in upstate New York were offered the choice of an apple or a cookie with their lunch, most chose the cookie. No surprise there. But when the apples had Elmo stickers on them, the number of children who picked the apple nearly doubled.

Partly because of the New York study, Elmo and friends will now be helping to sell fruits and vegetables in the U.S., possibly as early as mid-2014.

The study of Colombia preschoolers was presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2013.