Lessons on nutrition easy to digest in virtual reality spaces

Virtual reality may provide nutrition teachers and dietitians with an entirely new way to serve real lessons on healthy eating. In a study, students learned about nutrition both through an interactive VR lesson, as well as during a more traditional lecture that was hosted in a VR environment.

August 08, 2022

By Matt Swayne

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa — Virtual reality (VR) may provide nutrition teachers and dietitians with an entirely new way to serve real lessons on healthy eating, according to a team of Penn State researchers.

In a study, students learned about nutrition both through an interactive VR lesson, as well as during a more traditional lecture that was hosted in a VR environment. The research also showed that nutrition educators might not even need all the bells and whistles of VR interactivity for those lessons to be effective.

The findings suggest nutrition educators can use VR environments — in both immersive and traditional formats — for remote education. It could lead to a more scalable way to develop and distribute lessons on nutrition, including ones on portion control, according to Travis Masterson, who is the Broadhurst Career Development Professor for the Study of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and Institute for Computational and Data Sciences affiliate.

“One thing that comes up in nutrition is there is a lot of time spent on education and, as education professionals, we try to provide very simple information to people, but that might not be the most effective way,” said Masterson, who is also the director of the Health, Ingestive Behavior and Technology Laboratory. “When you learn about food, you learn best by experience — by actually dealing with food. For example, if you’re watching a cooking show, you don’t suddenly know how to cook. You need some hands-on experience. So, in this case, we weren’t trying to teach someone how to cook, but trying to get some of those food principles across the people.”

In virtual reality, a technology that produces a virtual 3D environment for the user, the team created an interactive space where students could have a hands-on — virtually speaking — experience with food to learn about portion control, as well as a lecture-based lesson that was designed to replicate how an instructor would teach a real-world class.