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Originally published Sunday, May 20, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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Smash Your Food; eat healthier

A Bellevue nutritionist and her husband have developed a game app that allows kids to smash foods and learn nutrition at the same time.

Special to The Seattle Times

App facts

In March, Smash Your Food was released as an iPad app.

The free version includes five foods; the $2.99 version includes 40 foods and meals. So far, more than 140,000 foods have been smashed around the world.

Coming up: Versions for iPhone and iPod Touch are planned for the summer.

A web version of Smash Your Food is available at www.foodnme.com.

Most Popular Comments
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This is a fabulous idea. Showing instead of telling has much more impact. Another idea... MORE

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You never know when inspiration will strike. For Bellevue nutritionist Marta De Wulf, a single meeting with a client generated the spark that led to the award-winning mobile nutrition game Smash Your Food.

The client was a 32-year-old woman who was struggling with obesity. Her friends had given her an hour with De Wulf in her private practice, asking her to teach their friend "how to eat, and eat well."

De Wulf was talking to the woman about basic nutrition and saw that she just wasn't getting it. "I started again, explaining what protein was, what a carbohydrate was," she said. "All of the sudden, she started to cry. She asked me, 'Why didn't anyone tell me this when I was in second grade and started to gain weight?' "

It was a pivotal moment. De Wulf had a new mission: to help the current generation of second-graders avoid the same fate. But she could not have guessed that her decision would lead to starting a new company, Food N' Me, with her husband, Frederic.

Smash Your Food lets kids guess the amount of sugar, salt and oil in favorite foods — burgers, doughnuts and milkshakes are a few — then smash them into oblivion to learn the totals. (A jelly doughnut has five teaspoons each of sugar and oil.) As players advance, the foods get more complex, leading to whole meals.

"It's kind of playful and it's fun, and it doesn't hit you over the head," said Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the University of Washington Center for Obesity Research. "It helps families make small, incremental changes so that they eat a little bit better."

In 2010, the year the De Wulfs launched Food N' Me, the Smash Your Food prototype was a winner in first lady Michelle Obama's Apps for Healthy Kids competition, part of her Let's Move! initiative. A 10-foot-tall version of the Smash Your Food machine is on display at the Toledo (Ohio) Imagination Station Science Museum.

Years of groundwork led to Smash Your Food. In 2005, De Wulf started teaching nutrition to Bellevue elementary-school students — and found that she was learning a few things, too.

"I really saw what worked and when the kids would have these 'aha' moments," she said. Teachers told her the kids weren't "bouncing off the walls" during class. One school cut its chocolate milk order because fewer kids were drinking it.

One day, De Wulf walked into a school lunchroom and saw a table of her students. They had "white milk" and fresh fruit on their trays. The students from classes she had not yet taught had chocolate milk, and no fruit to speak of.

De Wulf was having an impact — but there's only so much one person can do. In 2006, her husband encouraged her to scale her nutrition message to a wider audience. Fortunately, he had the multimedia background to help.

De Wulf gathered groups of parents to ask them what tools they needed to help their kids understand nutrition. "Hands down, they came back with, 'We want video games.' "

But not just any games. Games they could trust. Games they could feel good about their kids playing. Smash Your Food gives parents the option to receive emails with information about what their kids are learning, along with healthy eating tips.

Lisa Bey of San Diego said Smash Your Food has inspired her 10-year-old son, Connor, and her 18-year-old daughter, Taylor, to make healthier choices.

"It helped my son go off soda when he got his braces," she said. "He remembered that when he played Smash Your Food that a can of cola had eight cubes of sugar, and he even relayed that information to his orthodontist.

"My daughter has made comments that when she thinks about eating junk food, she remembers what they looked like smashing, and it grosses her out," Bey said. "You can tell them things over and over, but this app is so visual, it really makes an impression."

While the app compares a food's sugar/salt/fat totals to the child's "max per meal" totals (Because what does "a lot of sugar" mean if you don't have a point of reference?), it never says, "Don't eat this food." It's nonjudgmental.

"We need to have informed families, and we need to give them the tools they need to invoke change," De Wulf said. "Smash Your Food is a dialogue-starter. It's a way for families to talk about the information,"

"Kids play it because it's fun, but the information is embedded in it, and they can't help but walk away knowing more. I feel like once people are armed with information, there's no stopping them."

Carrie Dennett: nutritionbycarrie@gmail.com; Dennett is a graduate student in the Nutritional Sciences Program at UW and blogs at nutritionbycarrie.com.

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