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Visual image of foods helps kids make healthier choices

Researchers from Iowa State University found a digital

Researchers from Iowa State University found a digital display of food options helped kids make healthier food choices. Credit: iStock

Think fast: If you give your kids the choice of a salad loaded with vegetables or a burger and fries, which would choose? Most children, and adults too, would choose the less healthful option.

A new study from Iowa State University  found the trick to getting kids to eat more healthfully may be to convince them visually, rather than telling them to eat more fruits and veggies.

Researchers from Iowa State conducted a field study at the YMCA of Greater Des Moines summer camp for children ages 6-12 with diabetes. They used a digital display that featured a rotating image of a salad along with other menu information. Researchers found salad consumption among kids increased as much as 90 percent when a digital display showed healthy food options.

According to an Iowa State news release, campers were offered a nutritionally balanced daily menu, which included foods like tacos, sloppy joes, fruits and vegetables and had the additional option of a salad bar.

The digital sign had the greatest appeal among boys at the camp, who were 50 to 70 percent more likely to serve themselves lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots when the digital display showcased a vivid picture of a salad.  .

“The cool effect that we found and didn’t expect was with boys,” Laura Smarandescu, an assistant professor of marketing said in a news release. “It makes sense because boys like video games and interact more with technology. We noticed many boys stopping to look at the display and their behavior seemed to be more influenced by the presence of the display.”

So how can this be translated in restaurants and school cafeterias?

Fast food companies, like Burger King, have embraced the technology by using digital menu boards to feature new items or target key demographics. Iowa State researchers believe the displays could have a positive impact in school cafeterias and influence students to make better choices. The concept is similar to the “Smarter Lunchrooms Movement” developed by Brian Wansink at Cornell University, who has partnered with Iowa State researchers on this project.

"By displaying nutritious foods and drinks in a way that makes them more accessible and attractive in the lunchroom, Wansink has found students greatly increase their choice for more healthful options. Iowa State researchers believe a digital display can motivate students to make better choices in the same way," according to the news release.

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