Health & Fitness

Emojis: Can smiley/frowny faces help kids eat healthy?

FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2016, file photo, Julie Zhuo, product design director at Facebook, demonstrates the new emoji icons.
FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2016, file photo, Julie Zhuo, product design director at Facebook, demonstrates the new emoji icons. AP

With childhood obesity putting the pounds on America’s kids, one University of Phoenix researcher is testing a new tactic to encourage healthy eating among kids: emojis.

Using smiley faces (fruits and vegetables) and frowny faces (high-calorie snacks), the study found that children – ages 3 to 11 – were “substantially more likely” to choose healthy food packages when they were marked with emoticons.

“For a child, food packages have become picture books that have nothing to do with health information,” said Gregory Privitera, research chair with the University of Phoenix’s Center for Behavioral Health Research, who is based in New York. But using healthy-food indicators like emoticons could enable children to have “the same information as adults to make healthy food choices.”

He studied 64 children who were asked to pick foods for their school cafeteria at an upstate New York school where annual parent incomes were in the $50,000 range. Some foods were unlabeled; others were marked with happy faces (apple slices, applesauce, carrots, etc.) or sad faces (chips, cookies, Pop-Tarts, cupcakes). All were in snack-size packaging; healthy foods had 50 calories or less; unhealthy foods had 150-200 calories.

In the study, the children chose at least one extra healthy food when it was in packages marked with emoticons. Privitera said he hopes to expand the study across other income levels but the initial results appear to show that children can learn at an early age to consider healthy options, perhaps becoming part of the solution to childhood obesity. “It should never be too young to give children (healthy eating) information,” Privitera said.

UC Davis studies stem cells in Huntington’s disease

In their search for successful Huntington’s disease therapies, a team of UC Davis researchers has found a way to use human stem cells to deliver a necessary brain protein.

The devastating disease is caused by a defective gene that impairs brain cells, causing involuntary movements, impaired motor control, cognitive decline and behavioral disorders. It affects about 30,000 U.S. adults.

Using stem cells from adult bone marrow, the UC Davis team injected laboratory mice with stem cells to promote growth and healing in damaged brain tissue. During followup checks, the mice showed less anxiety, less brain cell degeneration, more neuron activity and a 15 percent increase in lifespan.

“We must complete additional animal studies before we can apply for regulatory approval to test this therapy in (Huntington’s) patients, but the results we’ve seen using the human cell products in mouse models of the disease are very encouraging,” said Vicki Wheelock, neurology professor and director of the UC Davis Huntington’s Disease Clinic in a statement.

The findings were published online last week in the journal Molecular Therapy.

Chilled scalp reduces breast cancer hair loss

For female breast cancer patients, losing one’s hair can be one of the toughest consequences of chemotherapy. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved a promising solution to that problem – a Swedish-made silicon cap that helps reduce hair loss for early-stage breast cancer patients.

Called the DigniCap, it works by chilling the scalp to near-freezing temperatures during chemotherapy and for 90 minutes afterward. Patients wear a tight-fitting cap chilled with a computer-controlled liquid coolant. The cold temperature constricts blood vessels, preventing the uptake of chemicals into hair follicles.

During clinical trials at the University of San Francisco, Wake Forest and other medical centers, seven of 10 breast cancer patients reported losing less than 50 percent of their hair. The cap was studied among 122 women with Stage I and Stage II breast cancer, but could be applied to some women with Stage III and Stage IV breast cancers, according to research.

“We are pleased to see a product for breast cancer patients that can minimize chemotherapy-induced hair loss and contribute to the quality of life of these individuals,” said Dr. William Maisel, acting director in the FDA’s Office of Device Evaluation, in a statement.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck