Candy Games Linked to Unhealthy Food Choices
Want your kids to eat healthy? Think twice before letting them play junk food-themed candy games. When kids played games embedded with ads for candy and other junk foods, they ate 55% more of the candy offered to them than kids who played a game with an embedded toy ad, according to research by Frans Folkvord, a behavioral scientist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
According to his research, only 6% of the kids were aware that these "advergames" were actually advertisements—even when the brand names and logos were visible. And whether the games were about fruit or about candy, the kids in his study consumed more candy after they played games involving food.
While Folkvord’s research didn’t link eating candy to a higher body mass index (BMI, a measure of body fat based on height and weight) two years later, he did discover that the BMIs of the children who ate more apples after playing an advergame had a lower BMI than those who ate candy. "The findings suggest that coping with environmental cues that trigger unhealthy eating behavior is associated with the body mass index of young children two years later," Folkvord said. "This might imply that learning to respond to food cues by choosing healthy options might prevent children from weight gain."
"We know video games can impact how a child behaves," notes Rubina Heptulla, MD, Division Chief of Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "Just as you wouldn’t have a five-year-old playing a violent video game aimed at teenagers, so it doesn’t make sense for a young child to play games showing junk food items. If you are seeing the food as you play the game, it can make you want to eat that food."
Games embedded with food ads are just another form of marketing, Heptulla adds, and there’s already far too much marketing of unhealthy foods to children on television. "There’s not that much research on how these games may affect kids’ candy eating, but it is an important area and more research needs to be done to determine if these games do have an impact on a child's desire to eat certain foods."
Luckily, parents and caregivers can keep junk food off the table. Here are some ways to do this:
1. Monitor the Online Games Your Child Plays
"Sit down with your child and watch what they are watching," advises Ruth Milanaik, DO, of Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, NY. "Instead of games that show candy, select games that get your kids moving, such as one of the dance games, or the ones that focus on a sport like tennis or soccer. Active games that the whole family can be involved in are healthy, wholesome choices when it comes to video games."
2. Model Healthy Behavior
Online games aren’t the only reason why kids may crave candy, says Miriam Pappo, MS, RD, CDN, Director, Clinical Nutrition of the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Kids tend to be influenced by what they see at home, she explains, so parents need to set a good example by limiting sweets and consuming healthier foods themselves. "If a child sees their parents emphasize eating healthier choices, and they see that sweets and candy are an occasional treat, they will likely eat the same way," Pappo says.
3. Permit the Occasional Indulgence
While it's appropriate to monitor your child’s consumption of sugary foods, that doesn't mean she should never be permitted to have a sweet treat. "When these foods are excluded, they become a forbidden food and then kids want them all the more," Pappo notes.
Balancing a healthy diet and fun treats can be difficult, but with the right approach, parents and children are up for the challenge.
Miriam Pappo, MS, RD, CDN, reviewed this article.
Heptulla, Rubina. Phone interview December 28, 2015.
Pappo, Miriam. Phone interview December 30, 2015.
Milanaik, Ruth. Phone interview December 29, 2015.
Folkvord, Frans. "Children’s Reactivity to Embedded Food Cues in Advergames." Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University. 2016.
"Candy Games Stimulate Appetite." Medical News Today. 21 December 2015.
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