Video games have been found to be good at promoting weight loss, and now researchers are hoping they can be a way for kids to learn more about healthy eating.
In a study published Monday in the journal Obesity, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and Duke University found that playing video games with a focus on positive social behavior led to decreased risk for developing obesity in children.
“The idea of a healthy food culture is a big deal,” said study lead author Tanya Pasternak, a postdoctoral researcher in the university’s Department of Psychology.
“So if kids are learning to think about food in a positive way, that might have a positive impact on their ability to eat a healthy diet.”
Researchers at UTHealth and Duke conducted a meta-analysis of existing research on the effects of video games on obesity.
In their analysis, they found that children who played video games while in school were more likely to be overweight or obese than children who didn’t.
The study is not yet definitive about the causal link between video games and obesity.
But it suggests that playing games with positive social interactions could be a good way to help children learn to be more mindful of their body image, and to make healthy choices.
“If we can help kids learn how to be aware of their own bodies and to look at other people’s bodies and what it means to be a person, that could be very helpful,” said lead researcher Michael Winterer, a professor of psychology and the director of UTHealth’s Department for the Study of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.
In the study, Wintrer and his colleagues used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, an ongoing study of more than 4,000 U.S. high school students.
They analyzed data on 4,942 boys and 2,532 girls who participated in a school-based video game-based intervention in high school.
The researchers analyzed the link between game play and weight gain in the boys, compared with those who didn, and then used the data to predict whether children who had played video game play were more or less likely to develop obesity.
The researchers found that video game players who had participated in the intervention had an increased risk for obesity than those who did not.
They also found that the boys who played games were more physically active and less likely than the girls to be obese.
In their meta-analytic analysis, the researchers also found video game exposure had a beneficial effect on the development of obesity among boys.
The findings were not entirely surprising.
The same study had shown that physical activity, which can reduce body fat, was associated with an increased weight in children, Pasternack said.
“It’s possible that the physical activity may be the thing that’s actually making children more healthy,” Pasternik said.
“If they’re playing games that help them with positive behaviors, then the physical activities they’re doing may be good things for them.”
Winterer said he was surprised by the positive effect of video game games on weight gain.
“We have a lot of theories about why people become obese,” he said.
For example, obesity is linked to genetics.
Video games could be helping children understand that genetics are the main factor in determining their body size.
“That may be a really promising way to prevent obesity, which is something that’s been known for a long time,” Wintering said.
Follow Michaela Reardon on Twitter:@MichaelaReardon.