May 17 (UPI) -- Researchers at the University of Exeter have developed a new computer game that encourages children to make healthier food choices.
The seven-minute computer game involves children reacting to images of healthy food by pressing a button or doing nothing if unhealthy foods were shown.
Researchers conducted two experiments on more than 200 children age 4 to 11 who played the computer game. For each image, a happy cartoon face was displayed for healthy food and a sad cartoon face was displayed for unhealthy food.
Children were instructed to hit the space bar when they saw a happy face and do nothing if they saw a sad face. The children then played a shopping game where they were asked to choose a limited number of food items in one minute.
"The sight of foods like chocolate can activate reward centers in the brain at the same time as reducing activity in self-control areas," Lucy Porter, lead researcher from the University of Exeter, said in a press release. "Our training encourages people to make a new association -- when they see unhealthy food, they stop."
Children in control groups who were shown happy and sad cartoon faces mixed evenly between healthy and unhealthy foods, or images which were not food-related at all, showed no changes in food choices.
"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," Porter said. "Age did not affect whether the game worked or not, meaning that children as young as four can benefit from playing."
The study showed that children who played the brain-training game were more likely to make healthy food choices compared to children who did not play the game.
The study was published in the journal Appetite.