41 adults who participated in four 10-minute online training sessions showed small yet significant amount of weight loss and reduction in caloric intake.

Psychologists from the University of Exeter and Cardiff University have developed a computer game that could help control binge eating and impulses of unhealthy snacking, leading to weight loss.

The research was recently published in the journal Appetite, and stated that the subjects involved in the study lost an average of 0.7 kg and consumed fewer than about 220 calories a day as they underwent a week of training.

Out of the total adult population in the UK, about 64 percent are overweight or obese. Based on these alarming statistics, researchers focused on investigating the possibility of using ‘brain training’ techniques to target behavioral problems – overeating and alcohol consumption to be precise. Welcome Trust funded the entire project.

Training Mind To Control Eating

The research team, led by Dr. Natalia Lawrence, enrolled 83 adults between the ages of 23 and 65, from the local community. The BMI’s of these individuals, mostly recruited from the NIHR Exeter Clinical Research Facility’s Exeter 10,000 participant panel, ranged from 21 (healthy) to 46 (obese).

The subjects were given a screening questionnaire, in which they had to account for their regular intake (about three times a week) of energy-dense foods – snacks such as crisps, biscuits, chocolates – and any behavioral problems regarding uncontrolled food intake.

The subjects were then weighed and assigned food rating tasks and food diaries which they had to complete a week prior to and a week after they had received training. Random allocation into experimental (active) and control groups was done.

The training involved the subjects playing a simple online computer game developed by the researchers. The game required the subjects in the active group to consistently avoid pressing on certain images (such as that of a biscuit) while responding positively to other pictures (such as those of clothes, fruits). The idea was to associate the stimulus calorie-dense foods with ‘stopping’, hence training the mind to avoid unhealthy foods. Subjects in the control group were trained according to the same principle, but were shown images of non-food items, such as stationery.

Interesting And Promising Results

The researchers had previously shown, via lab tests, that this type of training significantly reduces the amount of food consumed by people. These results corroborated the latter, showing that subjects in the active group lost about 0.7kg, reduced their daily caloric intake by about 220kcal, and most importantly, reported a lesser ‘liking’ of snacks and unhealthy foods.

Follow-ups indicated that these effects of training were maintained for about six months after the study. Moreover, 41 adults who participated in four 10-minute online training sessions showed a small yet significant amount of weight loss and reduction in caloric intake (estimated from food diaries).

Possible solution for managing weight

“These findings are among the first to suggest that a brief, simple computerized tool can change people’s everyday eating behavior,” Dr. Lawrence stated. “Our findings suggest that this cognitive training approach is worth pursuing: 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 behavior change interventions based on underlying psychological processes. However, this research is still in its infancy and the effects are modest. Larger, registered trials with longer-term measures need to be conducted.”