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Can Gamifying Healthy Eating Teach Better Food Habits?

Child making healthy food

Key Takeaways

  • Children who use games to learn about healthy food choices are more likely to eat those foods in real life, a study finds.
  • Games offer numerous learning strategies that may be more useful than simply delivering information.
  • Creating a competitive game-based environment for healthy habits can work for adults, too, previous research suggests.

Using video and mobile games to teach kids about healthy eating may have a major impact on their food choices, according to research published in JMIR mHealth.

Analyzing data from a randomized controlled trial of 104 children aged 10 to 11 years, researchers found that those who played a game called fooya!—which teaches healthy food identification—for just 20 minutes in two sessions, were significantly more likely to choose healthy food after playing compared to a control group.

Playing for the Plate

Games like fooya! aren’t the digital equivalent of flash cards, imparting basic educational information. Instead, the researchers emphasize that they work thanks to engaging players in multiple ways, including;

  • Many levels of challenges
  • Imaginative virtual worlds
  • Rewards for “unlocking” knowledge
  • Opportunity to navigate in distinct ways

This allows children to learn in different ways, based on their learning styles, as well as use problem-solving strategies and decision-making behaviors. Most importantly, the researchers concluded, the games are seen as a fun activity instead of a learning session, which makes them more open to gaining new information.

Critical Need

Investigating fresh approaches to build healthy food habits for kids and teens is becoming increasingly important, considering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that childhood obesity now affects one in five children and adolescents in the United States.

Erica Kenney, ScD

Prevention is much easier than treatment. In the case of childhood obesity, that’s true at the highest possible level.

— Erica Kenney, ScD

Although there are many factors that contribute to being overweight and obese, dietary decisions have been shown to be a leading cause. That led researchers in the current study to conclude there’s a need for more effective methods for improving dietary intake and physical activity habits early in life.

Particularly important, they added, was the need for intrinsic motivation, which involves adopting a habit without any obvious external rewards or incentives. That makes goals more satisfying and, as a result, more likely to be pursued through a lifetime. The earlier these kind of habits can be introduced to kids, the more likely they’ll be to adopt them.

“It’s like any chronic disease,” says Erica Kenney, ScD, in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Prevention is much easier than treatment. In the case of childhood obesity, that’s true at the highest possible level. There is a great deal of evidence that once obesity takes hold in the body, it’s hard to reverse. Once you’re a certain size, the body doesn’t like to let go of that.”

Helping children make better food choices can help to mitigate other potential risk factors as well, such as emotional issues, low physical activity, metabolism changes, and socioeconomic status, which can all play a role.

“Habits are important, but so are all these other components,” says Kenney. “Everyone needs to work together to address this issue from all directions.”

Not Just for Kids

Although children may establish healthy habits through the use of games, they’re not the only ones who can benefit from this kind of strategy. Adults also can gamify their goals, whether that means healthy eating through an app like MyFitnessPal or using a fitness tracker to create groups of others who have similar goals.

Mitesh Patel, MD

If you view wearables as a tool that’s part of a larger health strategy, and it makes behavior change fun, then it’s much easier to establish good habits that stick.

— Mitesh Patel, MD

Competition, in particular, can be especially motivational. A study in JAMA Internal Medicine that focused on workplace fitness device usage found that when small teams competed against one another, they were significantly more likely to increase activity compared to collaborative groups.

Also, the competition group maintained those healthy habits months after the study ended, according to study’s lead author, Mitesh Patel, MD, director of Penn Medicine’s Nudge Unit.

“Simply having a wearable device or a game is not enough to change behavior on its own,” he says. “But if you view wearables as a tool that’s part of a larger health strategy, and it makes behavior change fun, then it’s much easier to establish good habits that stick.” 

What This Means For You

Using games that identify healthy eating choices can be a fun way to teach children about good habits, and could lead to them choosing these foods in real life.

 

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  1.  Kato-Lin Y, Kumar UB, Sri Prakash B, Prakash B, Varadan V, Agnihotri S, Subramanyam N, Krishnatray P, Padman R. Impact of Pediatric Mobile Game Play on Healthy Eating Behavior: Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2020;8(11):e15717doi:10.2196/15717

  2. Patel MS, Small DS, Harrison JD, et al. Effectiveness of behaviorally designed gamification interventions with social incentives for increasing physical activity among overweight and obese adults across the United States: The STEP UP randomized clinical trialJAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(12):1624–1632. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.3505