Computer game conditions kids to eat healthier, study finds

UNITED KINGDOM — It may be possible to help temper a child’s craving of unhealthy foods — through a video game, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK created the easy, seven-minute long game, and found that children chose healthier snack options afterward. For the experiment, the team recruited over 200 schoolchildren, aged between four and 11, for two computer-based experiments.

Little girl eating watermelon
A new video game can help temper children’s cravings for unhealthy foods, researchers discovered.

One of the experiments had the young participants play the game in which they were shown both healthy snacks and less healthy options (e.g., chocolate and sweets). Snacks that were healthier had smiley cartoon faces next to them, and unhealthy choices were shown with sad cartoon faces.

The kids were instructed to press a button when they saw happy faces, and not interact if they were shown unhappy ones. No connection between the faces and the foods was explained to them beforehand.

The researchers found that by reinforcing positive associations with healthy foods, kids selected 20 percent more healthy options in a virtual shopping exercise conducted immediately after.

“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,” explains lead researcher Lucy Porter in a university news release.

Porter also determined that age made no difference in the outcome — even the 4-year-olds playing seemed to benefit.

In the other experiment, children played a control game that mixed happy and sad faces with food, regardless of being healthy or not. Those children showed no aversion to unhealthy treats in the shopping game.

As “the sight of foods like chocolate can activate reward centres in the brain at the same time as reducing activity in self-control areas, our training encourages people to make a new association – when they see unhealthy food, they stop,” she says.

Most importantly, “this easy game does all the hard work for you,” Porter emphasizes. “It’s not about learning anything consciously, it’s about working with automatic responses.”

If playing a game can help put our impulses in check, the researchers say that it’s worthy in its own right.

“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,” says Porter.

The game is now available online for children to play — click here to visit the site. Porter and her team are hoping parents will submit feedback to see if the game has equally beneficial results for those playing at home.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Appetite.

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