A game which trains the brain to stop reaching for alcohol and unhealthy food such as cakes, biscuits and chocolate can lead to ‘pain free’ weight loss and cut energy intake by more than 200 calories a day, according to psychologists.
Academics have found that less than 10 minutes a day of ‘brain training’ using a game they have devised can slow impulses to reach for unhealthy snacks and reduce calorie intake.
Dr Natalia Lawrence’s Food Trainer app, which used neuro-science and lab trials to devise a proven method of curbing unhealthy food intake, is being launched this week.
The app, which is free to the public, is being launched in a month when people traditionally make resolutions to lose weight and cut down on junk food.
A study of 83 adults showed that people who played the game online just four times in one week lost weight and ate an average of 220 kcal less per day - roughly equivalent to a chocolate-iced doughnut.
The Food Trainer game is to be featured on Channel 4 on Tuesday night in the programme How to Lose Weight Well.
Academics at the University of Exeter found in trials that playing the game without distractions for a few minutes a day can train the brain to control impulses to reach for chocolate, cakes, crisps or alcohol.
The app will allow dieters or those who want to cut consumption of junk food or alcohol try it and will also generate more anonymous data to help psychologists measure how effective an app version of the brain-training programme can be.
Dr Lawrence, a cognitive neuroscientist, designed the app after using brain imaging to study how the brain’s reward system responded to pictures of unhealthy food.
“It’s very exciting to see that our free and simple training can change eating habits and have a positive impact on some people’s lives,” she said.
“It’s a tool to help people make healthier choices. In an age where unhealthy food is so abundant and easily available and obesity is a growing health crisis, we need to design innovative ways to support people to live more healthily.
“We are optimistic that the way this app is devised will actually encourage people to opt for healthy food such as fruit and vegetables rather than junk food.”
The programme works by flashing up pictures, including images of unhealthy food. The user has to react by pressing on healthy foods and other items, while not reacting to unhealthy options.
It is designed to train the brain to suppress poor choices in real life.
People can select the foods they wish to avoid and every month it ask users how often they have eaten them.
And it asks them each time they play the game whether they have had a craving in the past 30 minutes.
Among those to have used the training is Fiona Furness, a studios manager for a charity providing studios for artists, who went from around 11 stone to around nine stone after taking part in a trial of the food training game.
“I used to feel really guilty about my bad snacking habits. I’d often be rushing about, and I’d grab something high calorie and unsatisfying – often a pack of crisps,” she said.
“I’d be hungry again really soon afterwards so it became a vicious cycle. The results have been remarkable,” she said.
“These days, if I am feeling peckish I’ll go for a banana or a pack of almonds. That’s the food I’m craving.
I’m now closer to nine stone than 11 – the pounds just melted away over eight or nine months without me even noticing.
“The weight loss wasn’t really my goal though – I feel younger and more energetic. Perhaps I’m particularly susceptible to this kind of brain training, but it has been transformative for me.”