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New study prompts media to blame videogames for obesity epidemic

Videogames will turn you into a hopeless glutton, according toa new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition- or at least that's what the media seems to be implying. As usual, the media's interpretation doesn't quite match the study.

“When we play video games, yes, we burn few calories, but we also eat more,” says kinesiologist Dr. Jean-Philippe Chaput, lead author of the study. Chaput recruited 22 young men and divided them into two groups. One would play games for an hour, while the control subjects would sit in a chair doing nothing for an hour. Afterwards, the subjects ate pasta. Those who played games ate on average 80 calories more. Blood tests indicated that hunger levels couldn't account for the excess consumption. Surveys the men filled out indicated that gamers ate on average 163 calories in excess of resting usage.

The researchers hypothesize that mental strain from playing videogames urges players to reach for comfort food high in fat and sugar. However, the actual conclusion in thestudy's abstractis far more conservative, “A single session of video game play in healthy male adolescents is associated with an increased food intake, regardless of appetite sensations.”

The conclusion as written in the study is hard to argue with. It's well documented that games (or any other cognitively taxing or exciting activity) cause all kinds of changes in the brain and body. The study itself notes, “Heart rate, systolic and diastolic blood pressures, sympathetic tone, and mental workload were significantly higher during the video game play condition than during the resting condition.”

The dubious science begins whentheNational Postuses the study to argue that video games cause weight gain. While the gaming group ate on average 80 calories a day more than the control group, there was no follow up later in the day or week to see if the excess calories were made up by a later calorie deficit.

While the study showed that gamers consume 163 calories a day in excess of their resting metabolic rate, there's no mention in the study as to whether these gamers were more or less active than the control group. It's possible that the gamers were actually more active than their non-videogame playing counterparts. According to a2008 study, gamers are more likely to play sports, go out with friends, or even go on a date. The study did not show that gamers actually weighed more than the control group.

The body uses more energy while playing games for an hour than resting for an hour. However, gamers in the study ate an excess of calories well beyond the difference between resting and playing games. Whatever happens in the brain while playing games, it stimulates appetite. What's not clear is whether other sedentary activities would have the same effect. It's possible that watching a horror movie, reading a tense scene in a book, studying hard, or playing a board game could have similar effects.

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Apr 20, 2011