How Mental Stimulation Exercises Can Nudge Healthier Food Choices for Children: An Abstract
Childhood obesity is a serious public health concern in the USA and around the world. While the obesity rate has stabilized in the recent past in the USA, the overall rate continues to be high with no trend for decline. Further, childhood obesity is known to have negative long-term effects. For example, children who are obese are at a higher long-term risk for adult diabetes than healthy-weight children (Liang et al., 2015).
How can children be nudged to make healthier food choices without banning or restricting certain types of foods? Based on previous research investigating affect and cognition in food decision making (Shiv & Fedorikhin, 1999), we suggest that mental stimulation exercises, such as in the form of undertaking mathematical problems, can activate cognitive processes in children. Activating a cognitive (vs. affective) decision mode might subsequently lead to healthier food choices overall. It should be noted that our mental stimulation task is different from the approach used by Shiv and Fedorikhin (1999). Specifically, in Shiv and Fedorikhin’s study, participants were given cognitively engaging tasks during the food choice episode, while in our research, the cognitive engagement is undertaken before the food choice is made.
We conducted two field experiments in the cafeteria of a middle school. Both studies were conducted in collaboration with the district school board and the middle school administration. In study 1, a between-subjects experiment, we had two manipulated conditions (math exercise before food choice vs. control condition of no math exercise). In the math exercise condition, the children were asked to solve two math problems before making a food choice for their lunch. The key dependent measure was the healthiness level of food bought at the cafeteria on this specific day. We conducted a follow-up experiment (study 2) with a different group of children. This study also had two manipulated, between-subjects conditions (undertaking math exercise vs. no math exercise). However, the dependent variable was a dichotomous choice scenario involving a healthy and an unhealthy option. The results of both studies showed that the children chose healthier foods to a greater extent when they had to undertake math exercises versus when not undertaking the math exercises.
Our focus on mental stimulation can have strong practical and conceptual implications. First, children make food choices autonomously in school cafeteria environments. Here, they are exposed to learning and mental stimulation before and after their lunch breaks. Scheduling a math class right before lunch break might positively influence healthy food choices. Second, we build on previous findings by investigating the effects of mental stimulation exercises as potential activators of cognitive decision-making modes.