Here’s some good new for all those struggling with weight loss. Researchers have developed a computer game and smartphone app to help people control unhealthy eating habits and ultimately lose weight.
The game is designed to improve a person’s “inhibitory control,” the part of the brain that stops you from giving into unhealthy cravings, even when the smell of French fries is practically begging you to step inside a fast food joint.
They also developed a mobile app that intelligently detects patterns in a person’s eating habits. When users are likely to slip from their dietary plans, the app provides tailored strategies to put them back on track. “Let’s say a colleague brings a box of doughnuts into the office. For a person who habitually consumes sweets, the first reaction is, ‘I want one’,” said Evan Forman from Drexel University in the US.
The secondary response tries to pump the brakes on that urge. But that reaction is typically slower and less strong than impulse, according to Forman. “However, studies have shown that if you do certain tasks that involve this inhibitory control over and over again, it actually gets stronger,” he said.
Researchers recently tested this theory. Habitual snack food eaters were assigned to one of four short, training exercises designed to increase their mindful decision-making and strengthen their inhibitory control. The study found that both types of training were successful in reducing snack food eating.
The game -- DietDash -- first requires participants to disclose the types of sugary foods they eat most frequently. They will then be assigned to one of four versions of a game that is customised to their diet. For example, if someone lists soda and chocolate chip cookies as their favourite treats, those items will appear in the game, researchers said.
Players are instructed to press certain keys to respond to different types of images, including pictures of tasty sugary foods and pictures of healthy foods, they said. As the player’s inhibitory control improves, the game speed increases for an extra challenge. Users are instructed to play this game for eight minutes per day, every day for six weeks, researchers said.
“The study is really the first to attempt to train people for weeks in a row. We think this can translate to real-world behaviours, because just like any task, it improves with practice,” said Forman.
Researchers’ second design is a weight loss app called DietAlert. Used in conjunction with the Weight Watchers app, the smartphone application collects information about users’ eating habits and uses a mathematical algorithm to determine when they are most likely to lapse from their diet plans. For example, the app may conclude that a person is most likely to eat junk food after lunch when they have skipped breakfast, researchers said.
As the app learns about someone’s patterns, it will send out a warning alert and offer a tip to help the user stick to his or her health plan, they said. The study was published in the journal Appetite.