The online game, developed by a team of researchers from the universities of Exeter and Cardiff, has not yet been commercialised but was found to be effective in a scientific study.
The game required participants to repeatedly avoid selecting pictures of eight types unhealthy food - known as stop training - whilst selecting other ‘neutral’ images, such as fruit or clothes.
This meant that the subjects began associating the unhealthy foods with saying no.
On average, participants who had resisted selecting pictures of unhealthy snacks lost 0.7 kg in weight and consumed 220 fewer calories each day during the week of training. They also gave lower liking ratings for the energy-dense foods than before the intervention.
Each subject was given a food diary and continued to report the weight loss and reduced snacking effects up to six months after the experiment.
Lead researcher Natalia Lawrence of the University of Exeter, said: “These findings are among the first to suggest that a brief, simple computerised tool can change people’s everyday eating behaviour. It is exciting to see the effects of our lab studies translate to the real world."
She said that while the research was still in its infancy and the effects relatively modest, the results showed that a cognitive training approach to weight loss could work.
Such training might be suitable as a complementary addition to existing weight loss programmes or therapies for improving eating behaviour and life style, the researchers suggested.
“It is free, easy to do and 88% of our participants said they would be happy to keep doing it and would recommend it to a friend. This opens up exciting possibilities for new behaviour change interventions based on underlying psychological processes,” said Lawrence.
The study involved 83 adults aged 23 to 65 years and with a BMI ranging from 21 to 46 (healthy to obese). All participants habitually consumed energy-dense food at least three times a week. Both the active and control groups completed the ten-minute computer game four times in one week.
After completing the task, participants were offered an ad-lib amount of crisps to eat. The researchers then weighed the crisps that were left and found that participants in the experimental group ate 33% less than the control. After one week's interventions, participants in the active group lost an average of 0.7 kg in weight and consumed 220 fewer calories.
The project has received funding from the European Research Council, and the researchers are now planning to test the stop training on a larger scale as part of a registered trial.
Source: Appetite Journal
Published February 2015, pp. 91-103, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.11.006
“Stopping to food can reduce intake. Effects of stimulus specificity and individual differences in dietary restraint.”
Authors: N. Lawrence, F. Verbruggen et al.