• FoodT aims to reduces cravings and help dieters to limit how much they eat. (EyeEm/Getty Images)Source: EyeEm/Getty Images
Resisting that chocolatey treat could be a few clicks away. On the new series of The Diet Testers, Dr Xand van Tulleken explores whether a computer game could strengthen your willpower and help you to refuse unhealthy foods.
Yasmin Noone

22 Oct 2018 - 11:39 AM  UPDATED 22 Oct 2018 - 11:44 AM

It’s one thing to start a diet in the hope of losing weight but it’s an entirely different thing to stick to it.

That’s because in many cases, the strength or weakness of our willpower could influence whether or not we follow the rules of a new diet or break them by eating unhealthy, sugary or fatty foods.

“Willpower really is self-control: it’s the ability to over-ride or suppress your impulse,” says neuroscientist at Exeter University, Dr Natalia Lawrence in the new series of The Diet Testers airing on SBS on Monday 22 October at 8.30pm. 

“So you might have an impulse to eat a cake, and willpower is your ability to stop that.”

“We got 80 adults to play either this game or a control game just four times in a week and they lost weight and they ate fewer high-calorie foods."

The part of the brain responsible for exercising willpower and regulating decision-making behaviour is the prefrontal cortex. Many scientists like Dr Lawrence currently believe that it’s possible to use technology to train this part of our brain to strengthen our dieting resolve.

As seen in the first episode of the new series of The Diet Testers, Dr Lawrence trials FoodTrainer (FoodT) – a simple brain training computer game she helped to create with a team of psychologists from the Universities of Exeter and Cardiff.

The idea behind FoodT is that by repeatedly playing the game, you can build up associations between certain foods such as chocolate and ‘stopping’ – putting the brakes on your eating behaviour.

“We got 80 adults to play either this game or a control game just four times in a week and they lost weight and they ate fewer high-calorie foods,” says Dr Lawrence.

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Host of the show, Dr Xand van Tulleken, experiments with a session of the brain training computer game.

“First, the software gauges how fast I choose a selection of foods, some healthy and others not so healthy,” says Xand.

“It records the eight foods I’m most drawn to."

Then, a series of foods flash up. For those in a thin frame, the healthy foods, Xand must press a key. For foods displayed in a bold frame, fattening treats like a chocolate bar and brownies, he must keep still and not press any keys].

“The point of the game is to train my brain to make healthier choices. At the end of my will power workout, I’m tested again on which foods I’m most drawn to.”

Xand’s results reveal that before training, he chose three unhealthy foods. Yet after one round of training, he chose two unhealthy foods.

So there’s hope. With a little training, it looks like we can beat our biology and strengthen our will power.”

According to a 2015 study evaluating FoodT, adults who participated in the brain training ate an average of 220 kcal less per day. That’s roughly equivalent to a chocolate-iced doughnut.

The research also suggests that playing the game reduces cravings, and helps dieters to limit how much they eat.

So there’s hope. With a little training, it looks like we can beat our biology and strengthen our will power.”

Although the reasons why the computer game works is still unknown, the researchers believe that the brain training exercise may suppress your natural motor responses so you are less likely to reach out, pick up a piece of food and eat it. By consistently not responding to unhealthy foods and depriving ourselves of a reward, it is thought that the program may train our brain to become less interested in unhealthy foods.

FoodT has been developed into an app for adults over age 18 to use at home. It is also available to play online on a desktop.

According to an information page about the app, the brain training could be more effective if users play FoodT “at a time or in a place where you usually eat the food you are trying to cut down on”.

“Playing the game in several different places and at different times of day may also help it to work better,” the site says.

“You are trying to teach your brain new associations about the food so the more times you play it, in different situations, the better.” 

The new five-part series of The Diet Testers starts on Monday, 22 October at 8.30pm on SBS. Watch each episode on Mondays at 8.30pm or stream from SBS On Demand after broadcast. 

Follow the conversation on social media: #SBSAustralia

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