Computer game could help children choose healthy food

May 17, 2017, University of Exeter
A child playing the brain-training game. Credit: University of Exeter

A simple brain-training game could help children choose healthy snacks instead of chocolate and sweets, according to a new study.

Children who played a seven-minute devised by University of Exeter psychologists made healthier choices when asked to pick foods afterwards.

The game involves reacting to images of healthy by pressing a button, and doing nothing if unhealthy foods are shown.

"The sight of foods like chocolate can activate reward centres in the brain at the same time as reducing activity in self-control areas," said Lucy Porter, the lead researcher on the project.

"Our training encourages people to make a new association - when they see , they stop.

"Many health promotion schemes rely on education and willpower and require a lot of time, staff and money, but our game potentially sidesteps these issues by creating a free, easy tool for families to use at home.

"The research is at an early stage and we need to investigate whether our game can shift dietary habits in the long-term, but we think it could make a useful contribution."

The researchers ran two experiments, and in total more than 200 schoolchildren aged 4-11 were shown images of healthy and unhealthy foods.

Alongside each image was a cartoon face - happy for , sad for unhealthy food.

Children had to hit the spacebar when they saw a happy face, and do nothing if they saw a sad face - they were not told that the game had anything to do with healthy or unhealthy food.

Afterwards, they played a shopping game where they had to choose a limited number of food items in one minute.

"We didn't see a total turnaround in favour of choosing healthy options, but these increased from about 30% of foods chosen to over 50% in who did the brain training," said Porter.

"Age did not affect whether the game worked or not, meaning that children as young as four can benefit from playing.

Meanwhile children in control groups - who were shown happy and sad faces mixed evenly between healthy and unhealthy foods, or images which were not food-related at all - showed no change in .

Similar research by the study's senior author, Dr Natalia Lawrence, has already led to the creation of an app which helps adults avoid unhealthy foods and lose weight.

"It's encouraging to see that this simple computer game has the potential to improve food choices in young children as well as in adults" she said.

"As we all know, it's incredibly important to encourage from a young age; children in the UK eat on average three times too much sugar and not enough fruit and vegetables.

"This game is one simple and relatively fun way of trying to redress the balance."

Porter added: "This easy game does all the hard work for you. It's not about learning anything consciously, it's about working with automatic responses.

She acknowledges that some people might feel uneasy about this, but she explains: "Playing this game is optional - unlike the constant stream of advertising designed to brainwash children.

"This game won't eliminate the effect of junk food advertising or price promotions, but it might give people a little bit of control back."

Explore further: 'Health halo' foods likely to pass parents' scrutiny by not examining nutrition labels

More information: L. Porter et al, From cookies to carrots; the effect of inhibitory control training on children's snack selections, Appetite (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2017.05.010

As part of the research, the game can now be accessed online at www.kidshealthyeatingproject.blogspot.co.uk

Related Stories

'Health halo' foods likely to pass parents' scrutiny by not examining nutrition labels

May 4, 2017
Parents choosing foods for their children are significantly more likely to purchase "health halo" products - branded to cause misleading assumptions of good nutritional value - when they only view package images and don't ...

Only one-third of parents think they are doing a good job helping kids eat healthy

February 20, 2017
If you know healthy eating is important for your kids but you also feel like it's easier said than done, you're not alone.

App combines latest research to help users curb food cravings

February 20, 2017
Experts are seeking volunteers to test a research-based app that aims to help users curb cravings for unhealthy foods and lose weight.

Online computer game can help shed weight and reduce food intake

June 25, 2015
A simple new computerised game could help people control their snacking impulses and lose weight. Psychologists at the University of Exeter and Cardiff University have today published a study that shows that participants ...

Unhealthy' image influences adolescents' food choices

November 5, 2015
Adolescents more readily choose an unhealthy snack if they've been shown a picture of, for example, crisps or chocolate. This is the main finding of research conducted among Amsterdam schoolchildren by researchers from the ...

Kids' characters to vanish from unhealthy Dutch foods

December 8, 2016
Famous children's characters such as Dora the Explorer may soon disappear from some commercial food packaging in The Netherlands to discourage unhealthy eating habits, food industry representatives said Thursday.

Recommended for you

Americans are getting more sleep

January 19, 2018
Although more than one in three Americans still don't get enough sleep, a new analysis shows first signs of success in the fight for more shut eye. According to data from 181,335 respondents aged 15 and older who participated ...

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.

Sleep better, lose weight?

January 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Sleeplessness could cost you when it's time to stand on your bathroom scale, a new British study suggests.

Who uses phone apps to track sleep habits? Mostly the healthy and wealthy in US

January 16, 2018
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke.

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...

Can muesli help against arthritis?

January 15, 2018
It is well known that healthy eating increases a general sense of wellbeing. Researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have now discovered that a fibre-rich diet can have a positive influence ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.