29 January 2020

Using games to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables

eating behaviour

Board games, card games and even computer games can be used to get children to eat more fruits and vegetables. Conversely, games can also encourage children to eat more unhealthy snacks. This is the conclusion of researchers from the University of Copenhagen who examined whether games can affect children's eating habits.

Purpose developed games can increase children's fruit and vegetable intake (Getty Images).

About 4 out of 10 Danish children consume daily recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables. It has been suggested that children might be able to play their way to healthier eating habits. Purpose developed games – whether computer games, board games, card games or other types – can increase children's fruit and vegetable intake according to the research.

A team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen has completed the first major review of research in this area to determine whether games actually work. They reviewed 43 studies from the around the world that investigate the use of games and 'gamification' purposed with influencing the eating habits of children.

"Most games succeed at influencing child behavior in a desired direction. For example, by getting them to consume larger amounts of fruit and vegetables and raise their awareness about food. The games that work combine aspects of competition, such as earning points, with a compelling plot, where the player is typically a hero on a mission," says first author Ching Yue Chow of the the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science.

66 percent more fruit in the school cafeteria

A study in the United States shows that a physical game in which 5-6-year-old children had to help a superhero beat back villains by eating fruit and vegetables caused the children to eat 66% more fruit and 44% more vegetables in the school cafeteria. Parents reported greater consumption at home, and a greater willingness among among their children to try new types of fruits and vegetables.

"When one learns to eat more fruits and vegetables as a child, we know that their behavior will continue into adulthood. As such, it is important for us to learn how to change eating habits while people are still young. Here, games can be useful tools," according to associate professor and co-author Annemarie Olsen from the Department of Food Science.

She believes that it is necessary to compare game experiences against more traditional approaches used to change children's eating behaviors, in order to explore how best to use games as tools.

At the psychological level, effective games are characterised by their ability to provide children with a sense that they are acting on their own free will, that they feel competent to perform the required actions and that they are part of a social community. The researchers point out that it is very important for games to be designed in such a way that they create intrinsic motivation in children, so that they are not just motivated by reward.

"If reward is always at the heart of game, there's a risk that motivation will disappear once the game is finished," says Ching Yue Chow.

She points out that most studies have only investigated short term effects and that more research is required to study effects over the long term

Companies entice children with games

The researchers looked at a game experiment designed to get children to eat more healthy or unhealthy snacks. The latter are known as advergames, and used by companies use to promote a specific product. Here, there’s a clear effect.

"All of the studies in this area demonstrate that these games have an immediate effect on children, whether getting them to eat healthy - or unhealthy snacks. Thus, one should be aware that games can also have a negative effect on  children's eating habits," says Ching Yue Chow.