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Software Game Nudges Kids to Healthy Food

Software Game Nudges Kids to Healthy Food

New research suggests a simple brain-training game could help children choose healthy snacks instead of chocolate and sweets.

Psychologists from the University of Exeter in the U.K. designed a seven-minute game that 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 centers in the brain at the same time as reducing activity in self-control areas,” said doctoral student Lucy Porter, the lead researcher on the project.

“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 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 favor of choosing healthy options, but these increased from about 30 percent of foods chosen to over 50 percent in children who did the brain training,” said Porter.

Investigators noted that 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 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 healthy eating habits from a young age; children in the U.K. 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.”

Source: University of Exeter/EurekAlert
Photo: A child playing the brain-training game is pictured. Credit: University of Exeter.

Software Game Nudges Kids to Healthy Food

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Software Game Nudges Kids to Healthy Food. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 18 May 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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