More than half of American adults consume excess added sugars, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Major dietary guidelines recommend limiting foods high in added sugars. A recent study shows that a computer game can be used to train its players to eat less sugar, as way of reducing their weight and improving their health.
"Added sugar is one of the biggest culprits of excess calories and is also associated with several health risks including cancer," said the senior author. "For these reasons, eliminating added sugar from a person's diet results in weight loss and reduced risk of disease."
As part of their study, which was recently published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, the researchers developed and evaluated a "brain training" game targeting the part of the brain that inhibits impulses with the hope that it would improve diet, specifically by decreasing the consumption of sweet foods. Think: Lumosity for your diet.
"Cognitive, or 'brain, training' games have been used to help people reduce unhealthy habits, like smoking," said the senior author. "We were also seeing positive results from labs using computer training programs."
This research is the first to examine the impact of this type of "highly personalized and/or gamified inhibitory control training" on weight loss using repeated, at-home trainings, according to the author.
The group conceptualized a game called "Diet DASH," for purposes of the study based on cognitive training,. The game automatically customized the training to focus on the sweets that each participant tended to eat and adjusted the difficulty according to how well they were resisting the temptation of sweets.
The trial randomized 109 participants who were overweight and ate sweets. Participants attended a workshop prior to starting the game to help them understand why sugar is detrimental to their health and to learn which foods to avoid and methods for doing so.
"The workshop helped give participants strategies for following a no-sugar diet. However, we hypothesized that participants would need an extra tool to help manage sweets cravings," said the senior author. "The daily trainings could make or break a person's ability to follow the no-added sugar diet. They strengthen the part of your brain to not react to the impulse for sweets."
Participants then played the game on a computer for a few minutes every day for six weeks and then again once a week for two weeks.
In the game, players move as quickly as possible through a grocery store with the goal of putting the correct food (healthy foods) in a grocery cart, while refraining from choosing the incorrect foods (their preferred sweet). Points were awarded for correct items placed in carts.
For over half of the participants, who showed higher preferences toward sweets, playing the game helped them lose as much as 3.1 percent of their body weight over eight weeks. Participants also indicated that they found the daily training satisfactory, that it became part of their daily routine and that they wished to continue the trainings if they were available.
"The study's findings offer qualified support for the use of a computerized cognitive training to facilitate weight loss," said the senior author.
The study also randomized whether participants received a highly gamified (enhanced graphics and sounds) or a less-gamified versions of the training. While the difference between the level of gamification did not matter, overall, to whether participants reduced sugar consumption and lost weight, they did find that the few men in the study reacted better to the highly gamified version than the women in the study. The WELL Center is now conducting a new trial with the highly gamified version of this training specifically for men and is actively recruiting participants.
Train your brain to eat less sugar
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