Children choose healthier snacks after playing brain-training game

Updated: 

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 game devised by psychologists made healthier choices when asked to pick foods afterwards.

The game involves reacting to images of healthy food 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 lead researcher Lucy Porter, of the University of Exeter.

"Our training encourages people to make a new association - when they see unhealthy food, 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 four to 11 were shown images of healthy and unhealthy foods.

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

Children had to hit the space bar 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 children who did the brain training," said Miss 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 food choices.

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

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

"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."

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

:: The study, From cookies to carrots; the effect of inhibitory control training on children's snack selections, is published in the journal Appetite.