On a recent road trip my boys found the Pac-Man app for the iPad, and like millions of children from the 1980s, they got hooked. So weeks later, when my younger son told me that he just couldn’t wrap his head around how food prevents disease, I decided to recruit Pac-Man to my aid.
I began my explanation by describing free radicals, which are teeny little molecules released in our modern-day environment and produced when our body breaks down certain foods. These free radicals damage cells and have a proven role in cancer and heart disease. I told my boys to imagine that the ghosts in the Pac-Man game are the free radicals. They will inevitably end up in our bodies; we just need to take measures to destroy them before they can hurt our cells.
I then explained that antioxidants are the Pac-Men that gobble up all the free radicals. Antioxidants are found in whole, real foods, especially colorful fruits and vegetables. Logic would serve that the more healthful food we eat, the more Pac-Men we have in our bodies working to clean up the unwelcome free radicals before they can wreak havoc.
There are other contributors to disease besides free radicals, and there are other tools to prevent disease besides antioxidants, but for my boys, this answer in language they could understand seemed to stick. They immediately polished off a plate of crudites I had surreptitiously placed on the table.
Even if your children are not Pac-Man-literate or playing any video games at all (good for you!), you could surely furnish a comparison that will ring true in their minds. Remember, the goal isn’t to get our kids to eat a good dinner tonight. The goal is to teach them why eating well matters overall so when they go off on their own they make the right choices. As much as I loathe video games in general, if Pac-Man helps my boys understand this important lesson, I am a friend of Pac-Man.
Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company.