Professor Natalia Lawrence’s Food Trainer app is being launched this week free to the public.

App trains people not to reach for chocolate and alcohol

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.

Psychologists at the University of Exeter have found that less than ten minutes a day of ‘brain training’ using a game they have devised can slow impulses to reach for unhealthy snacks, and reduce calorie intake.

Using neuroscience and lab trials to devise a proven method of curbing unhealthy food intake, Professor Natalia Lawrence’s Food Trainer app is being launched this week free to the public, 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 4 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 this week (17 January) in a programme on ‘how to lose weight well’ for Channel 4, broadcast at 8pm. The majority of adults (64%) in the UK are overweight or obese, with consumption of too many calories being a major factor.

The academics 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 release of the free app will allow dieters or those who want to cut consumption of junk food or alcohol to try it and in the process generate more anonymous data to help psychologists measure how effective an app version of the brain-training programme can be.

The basis of the app is published research showing that people are more inclined to choose foods or drink high in sugar and fat because they activate the brain’s reward system, stimulating the release of dopamine and endorphins, which can produce feelings of pleasure and make the person want more.

Research has found that the more people activate brain areas associated with reward when they see foods, the more they eat and the more weight they gain. Once triggered, these impulses can be hard to control. People who are naturally impulsive or reward sensitive may find it harder to control alcohol or food consumption and are inclined to reach for particular foods because they trigger a strong response in the brain.

Dr Natalia Lawrence, a cognitive neuroscientist at Exeter University, 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 asks 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 half hour.

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. She said the “pounds just melted way”.

“I used to feel really guilt 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. 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.”

The Food Training game is based on the concept of “response inhibition training” to reduce overeating and drinking and makes people pause before impulsively reaching for their favourite food or drink.

Psychologists paired high-calorie foods or alcohol with “stop” instead of “go” responses. Studies suggest this can reduce activation of the motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls your movement and reactions, and decrease the reward value of certain foods and alcohol. Each time people use the game they will be asked if they have had a recent craving for the food they want to avoid, allowing psychologists to measure the app version’s effectiveness. Every month, users will be asked if or how often they have eaten the junk food or drink they have chosen to avoid, allowing psychologists to further measure its effectiveness using the anonymous data.

Users of the app, who should ideally use it for a few minutes a day without distractions, can tailor it to reduce compulsions to unhealthy food they have most problem with, as well as alcohol, but not to reduce consumption of healthy foods including vegetables.

The scientists have launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise up to £5,000 to develop the app, this week made available for android devices, into an app that can be used on i-phones and i-pads.

For more information, visit the FoodT app website.

Date: 16 January 2017