Training the brain to avoid junk food: Does the app targeting behaviour change really work?

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/Marko Geber
GettyImages/Marko Geber

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Can a simple computer game train the brain to stop eating unhealthy food and drink? The results from lab experiments and real-world trials are in.

The UK is facing a health crisis, with a majority of citizens failing to eat an adequately healthy diet.

It is estimated that 75% of men and 72% of women do not consume enough fruit and vegetables in their diet, while recommended sugar intake guidelines are exceeded by 100%. Two in every three adults are currently obese or overweight.

As obesity and associated health conditions are recognised as major concerns, researchers are interested in behavioural weight management interventions designed to reduce calorie intake. These range from taxing beverages with high levels of added sugar to providing information about healthy diets.

However, a group of psychologists from the Universities of Exeter and Cardiff in the UK believe unconscious, impulsive psychological processes may play an important role in consumer diets. As a result, the team has developed a computer game that aims to help consumers reduce their intake of unhealthy foods.

Being researchers, they have also conducted a study to determine the effectiveness of the computer app in both lab and real-world experiments. And the results are in.

Putting the brakes on junk food

The researchers describe their FoodTrainer (FoodT) app as a ‘simple computer game’ capable of training one’s brain to stop consuming unhealthy food and drinks.

By repeatedly playing the game, consumers build up associations between certain foods (such as chocolate) and stopping, which the researchers describe as ‘effectively putting the brakes on your eating behaviour’.

“This won’t stop you from eating these foods completely, but it will give you some control back,” ​noted the researchers. “People also like these [unhealthy] foods a little less after training, which also helps people to cope with cravings.”

FoodT provides ‘Go/No-Go’ training, which aims to alter implicit food biases by creating associations between perceiving unhealthy foods and withholding a dominant response.

Whether using a smartphone or computer, the app presents participants with images of unhealthy foods a control pictures (of healthy foods and/or non-food items such as clothing). In addition to these pictures, they are presented with a ‘go’ or a ‘no-go’ clue. In the case of FoodT, that cue is either a green or red border around the picture.

Participants are instructed to press a button on their keyboard or on their smartphone screen whenever they see a ‘go’ cue (i.e the green border), and withhold when a ‘no go’ cue appears. The ‘go’ cue always aligns with control pictures, whereas the ‘no go’ cue appears alongside images of unhealthy foods.

The idea is that by repeatedly pairing unhealthy food cues with inaction, the associative link between unhealthy, unpalatable food and motoric responses is disrupted.

An effective tool for weight loss?

To investigate the effectiveness of the ‘Go/No-Go’ training, researchers from the University of Exeter and the University of Helsinki analysed data from the FoodT app. A total of 1234 participants, made up of 857 women and 377 men, contributed data to the study.

“Our research suggests that playing this game reduces cravings for foods like chocolate, making them easier to resist and reducing how much is eaten,” ​noted the researchers.

A total of 40% of users adhered to the 10 recommended sessions and that participants who used the app more reported larger reductions of unhealthy food intake and larger increases in healthy food intake.

“Our analyses suggest that spacing training out over time is more beneficial than concentrating it,” ​wrote the study authors. “Future controlled trials should aim to confirm these observations findings to determine optimal training schedules for potential users.” 

Source: Appetite
‘App-based food Go/No-Go training: User engagement and dietary intake in an opportunistic observational study’
Published online 17 May 2021
Authors: Matthias Burkard Aulbach, Keegan Knittle, Samantha Barbara van Beurden, Ari Haukkala

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