Computer-based ‘brain training’ programs are all the rage at the moment. Now that same technology has been applied to nutrition to help people eat less sugar.

Australians eat far too much added sugar in their diet. Soft drinks, confectionery, cakes and biscuits plus any number of overly sweetened food products where sugar is lurking in the ingredient list feature far too prominently in the Australian diet.

With greater scrutiny of added sugars such as sucrose and fructose, researchers are looking at ways to help people eat less. The problem here is that because sugar has such a desirable taste, it can be hard for people to ‘kick the habit’ and opt for foods lower in added sugar.

One novel area of research to help people eat less sugar is applying the principles of ‘brain training’ games. Brain training games can personalise what is presented to a person based on their behavioural patterns.

On top of this, use of ‘gamification’ can promote and reinforce positive behaviours by offering in-game rewards.

Putting the brain-training theory to the test, a research team developed a computer game called Diet DASH.

The game involves players moving as quickly as possible through a supermarket with the goal of putting healthy foods into a shopping trolley while avoiding choosing less healthy high sugar foods. Every correct item added earned a point with the game customising itself and its level of difficulty to focus on sweet foods each person tended to eat.

In the study, 106 people took part in the gaming challenge with each person attending a workshop prior which gave information on why too much sugar is unhealthy and where it can be found in foods.

After this, each person was randomised to a different version of the game that was designed to feature gamification and active training methods to different degrees. They were asked to play the game for a few minutes each day for six weeks and then once a week for the next two weeks.

For people who showed a higher preference for sweet foods at the start of the study, playing the game helped them lose an average of three per cent of their body weight over eight weeks.

The daily gaming was considered of little burden to the participants and most found it became part of their normal daily routine – they were happy to consider continuing after the study ended.

Implications

This research is the first to use highly personalised and gamified ‘brain training’ to help people eat healthier and potentially even lose weight.

With the digitally connected world we live in and the immediate access to computer devices such as smartphones, there could be a surge in highly gamified apps to help promote positive health behaviours.

Last Reviewed: 09/04/2020

© Norman Swan Medical Communications.



References

For reference: Evan M et al. Computerized neurocognitive training for improving dietary health and facilitating weight loss. Journal of Behavioral Medicine Epub online 19 March 2019 doi: 10.1007/s10865-019-00024-5.

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