No, Jeb Bush: Money for Games to Combat Childhood Obesity is No Waste

Kids eating a healthy school lunch.  (Wikimedia Commons)

Thea Runyan, a Bay Area-based health educator.
Thea Runyan, a Bay Area-based health educator specializing in weight loss programs for kids. (Thea Runyan)

Editor's Note: Thea Runyan, MPH, is a health educator and behavioral coach specializing in weight loss programs for obese and overweight children. I asked Runyan to share her views as she has spent over a decade developing both online and offline weight loss programs for kids.  Runyan has developed a coaching app, which is based on principles she learned as a health educator, but she hasn't used federal funding.

Earlier this week, presidential candidate Jeb Bush described a game that teaches children about healthy eating as a waste of "scarce [federal] resources." The game, called “Mommio” is being developed with a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

I disagree with this assessment. In my fifteen years as a behavioral coach and health educator, I've seen a lot of inefficiency and waste. But I believe technology represents an opportunity to help us teach children healthy eating habits.

I applaud the government in supporting an initiative that is relevant, may be used by families, and is relatively cost-effective compared with the millions upon millions of dollars in grant money spent on childhood obesity initiatives across the country. Many of these programs are poorly coordinated (if at all), unmeasured and cannot be implemented at scale. And that's without counting the long-term medical costs linked to childhood obesity, which include Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

According to the CDC, the percentage of young children, aged 6 to 11, who are obese in the U.S. increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012. And in 2012, fully one-third of all children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

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For 12 years, I worked as a behavioral coach at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. A large part of my job was to work with parents to create healthy environments for kids and teens. It was a major challenge for families to make healthy choices about food and exercise. Nutrition, in particular, proved to be very confusing for adults and kids.

There was clearly a need for a tool that would make it easier for families to access information that would support the healthy lifestyle changes they were making. We predicted that a mobile app with health education and behavior modification tools, combined with a brief weekly check-in with a coach, would be a fun and engaging way for families to make these changes.

After licensing the program from Stanford University, we secured private funding to create a mobile and online weight management program for kids, teens and their families.

When I started a mobile coaching app to help obese children and teens lose weight, called Kurbo, I saw first-hand that technology, including apps and games, can make it easier for families to navigate these challenging concepts. At Kurbo, we created a learning game called Red Raisins that teaches families which foods are healthy or not by labeling them as "green," "yellow" and "red." It also teaches how to count portion sizes and read labels. This is one of the most popular features of the app.

In my view, today's parents are far more likely to use a technology tool like Mommio than read a medical textbook, enroll in an expensive healthy eating program, or even seek advice from a doctor or dietician.

Still, like the CEO of Mommio, I've heard many criticisms over the years.

Some have argued that video games, app trackers and the rest are additional screen-time that contribute to a sedentary lifestyle. This is a silly and outdated view. Kids and parents are on their phones. Health educators need to meet them where they are. Others [critics] have referred to me as a "crazy nutrition mom" or the "food police."

Unfortunately, the field is still nascent and we lack conclusive research to prove that technology can make a difference in the childhood obesity epidemic. But that makes it imperative for games like Mommio to get the funding they need, so we can track the impact.

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The bottom line is that $2 million is a very small price to pay if the game is able to improve health behaviors in millions of people.

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