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New computer game could be a tool in parents’ struggle to encourage healthy eating

Anyone doing their best to get their children to choose a banana over biscuits might want to read on. Research supported by EU funding has fed into the development of a computer game that could help children to go for healthy snacks over chocolate and sweets.

The task of encouraging people, especially children, to choose a healthy food option is a tough one. Past studies have shown that emphasising the health benefits of foods can have the adverse effect of decreasing consumption amongst children and palatability of foods remains a strong factor in food selection. It has previously been noted that educational campaigns may be ineffectual due to their neglect of the automatic processes that contribute to behaviour. Given the challenges facing those trying to fundamentally change behaviour, psychologists based at the University of Exeter decided to see what would happen if they linked energy dense foods with ‘inaction’ in the game they developed. The seven-minute computer game requires players to react when shown healthy food by pressing a button, and by doing nothing when unhealthy food appears on the screen. This encourages them to make a new association – when they see unhealthy food they stop. Researcher Frederick Verbruggen, one of the team, was supported by a European Research Council grant. He and his colleagues conducted two studies described in their paper ‘From cookies to carrots; the effect of inhibitory control training on children's snack selections’, published in the journal 'Appetite'. They carried out experiments involving more than 200 schoolchildren, aged 4-11, who were shown images of foods that were good and those that were energy dense. Alongside each image was a cartoon face – happy for healthy food, sad for unhealthy food. They had to hit the spacebar when they saw a happy face, and do nothing if they saw a sad face. As the researchers put it, ‘The mechanisms behind such training are thought to be twofold; firstly, consistently associating a stimulus with inhibition encourages the development of stimulus-stop associations, helping to automatise inhibitory control in response to that stimulus.’ Having played the game, the children then had to select a limited number of foods in a minute. Half the food selected by those who had played the game was 'healthy' in comparison with the 30% selected by children who had not played. Children in the control group, who were shown happy and unhappy faces regardless of the food images shown, or in connection with images unrelated to food, showed no changes in their food choices. The scientists explain that whereas previous campaigns have focused on education and willpower, requiring time and money, they hope that their training will encourage people to make a new association, stopping when they see food that is not 'healthy'. Overall the results of the studies indicate that ICT can provide useful tools to help children improve their eating behaviour. However researchers recognise a limitation of the study is the current lack of follow-up to show whether one session of training is sufficient for long-lasting changes or if continued practice is required. They add that it would be important to understand whether or not ICT can help overweight and obese children to change their choices and manage their food differently. To build on their current findings, the team has published their game online. They are keen to see whether it works when played at home and would very much like to hear what parents and children think of it. For more information, please see: project website


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