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  • By Maureen Williams, ND

Can Video Games Help Kids Eat Healthy?

As with so many things, it may be that quality matters as much as quantity when it comes to children’s video games. A new study found that children ate more fruits and vegetables after playing adventure-based video games designed to improve their diet and physical activity behaviors.

Children who played adventure-based video games ate more fruits and vegetables

The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, compared the effects of two epic video adventure games to two knowledge-based video games on children’s behavior. All of the games were designed to motivate children to make healthy lifestyle changes including increasing fruit and vegetable intakes, water consumption, and physical activity.

Games that grab them are more effective

The 133 children in the study were 10 to 12 years old and had BMI (body-mass indices) that indicate they were overweight or at risk to be overweight (between the 50th and 95th percentiles for age). They were assigned to either the adventure games group or the knowledge games group. The adventure games (“Escape from Diab,” referred to as Diab, and “Nanoswarm: Invasion from Inner Space,” referred to as Nano) were both epics consisting of nine sequential sessions, each building on gains from the previous session. Behavior-changing motivators were incorporated into the stories at the centers of the games. The knowledge games involved a similar number of game-playing sessions, providing information about nutrition and lifestyle and interactive quizzes.

At the end of the trial, children in the adventure games group had made more substantial changes in fruit and vegetable intakes and physical activity than the children in the knowledge games group. The biggest difference between the groups was in fruit and vegetable consumption. “The games motivated players to substantially improve diet behaviors,” the study’s authors said. “[However,] fruit and vegetable intake and water consumption and physical activity were still below the minimum recommendations, indicating that more work is needed.”

The Popeye effect

It should come as no surprise that engaging stories affect children’s behaviors. The popularity of Popeye, the spinach-eating cartoon hero who appeared regularly in comics in the 1930s, was credited with a 33% increase in spinach consumption in the US during that decade. Even as recently as 2010, researchers have found that children eat more spinach after viewing Popeye cartoons.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

Parenting advisors invariably suggest limiting screen time for many good reasons, including getting kids to be more active. Despite this sound advice, the Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that children between 8 and 18 years old spend an average of 7.5 hours per day using computers, television, and other electronic devices.

Introducing your kids to engaging video games that effectively lead to healthy lifestyle changes is one way to intervene in the trend. To learn more about new health-promoting video games that are being developed, visit www.healthgameschallenge.org.

(Am J Prev Med 2011;40:33–8)

Maureen Williams, ND

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice on Cortes Island in British Columbia, Canada, and has done extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to TraceGains Newswire.

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