Recent reports have suggested that people in the United States eat too much sugar, which can make them overweight and expose them to various health conditions. Yet an experimental computer game could help people curtail their sweet cravings, new research suggests.

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A new trial tests the effects of a game designed to help people reduce their sugar cravings.

Some records indicate the people in the U.S. consume, on average, about 57 pounds (almost 26 kilograms) of added sugar per person per year.

This is significantly more than the quantity indicated as safe in official guidelines, such as those issued by the American Heart Association (AHA), which state that adults should have no more than approximately 6 teaspoons of sugar per day, for women, and no more than around 9 teaspoons of sugar per day, for men.

Overconsumption of foods that are high in sugars, and especially added sugars — such as candy, cookies, and cakes — may contribute to obesity-related health problems and, according to some studies, may increase the risk of certain forms of cancer.

Considering the potential ill effects of consuming too much added sugar, a team from Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, in Philadelphia, PA, wanted to find a new approach to getting people to avoid processed foods rich in sugar.

For this purpose, the team — led by Evan Forman, Ph.D. — developed a “brain-training” computer game aimed at teaching individuals to reach less often for sweets and more often for more nutritious foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

“Added sugar is one of the biggest culprits of excess calories and is also associated with several health risks, including cancer. For these reasons, eliminating added sugar from a person’s diet results in weight loss and reduced risk of disease,” explains Forman.

Forman notes that “Cognitive, or brain-training, games have been used to help people reduce unhealthy habits like smoking,” and adds, “We were also seeing positive results from labs using computer training programs.”

So, he and colleagues wondered if they would be able to apply the same principle to encouraging more healthful dietary habits.

Thus, they developed a game — which they named “Diet DASH” — in which the player has to move as quickly as they can through a supermarket, rejecting unhealthful products such as sweets and adding healthful foods to the shopping cart instead.

To test the effectiveness of this game, the researchers recruited 106 adult participants who were overweight — which in this case meant having a body mass index (BMI) of 25–50 kilograms per square meter — and who reported eating at least 2 servings of high-sugar foods on a daily basis.

Before taking part in gameplay, the participants attended workshops where they learned why sugar can be bad for health, which sweet foods are unhealthful, and which whole foods are the most nutritious.

Later, the participants played the games at home, first for a few minutes at a time, every day for a period of 6 weeks, then once per week for 2 weeks.

“The workshop helped give participants strategies for following a no-sugar diet. However, we hypothesized that participants would need an extra tool to help manage sweets cravings,” Forman explains.

“The daily trainings,” he adds, “could make or break a person’s ability to follow the no-added sugar diet. They strengthen the [relevant] part of your brain to not react to the impulse for sweets.”

The researchers found that more than half of the participants with strong sweet cravings managed to lose 3.1% of their body weight over the 8 weeks during which they played the game.

Moreover, the volunteers reported enjoying the gameplay and indicated that they would be happy to continue this brain-training in the future. The researchers report their results in a study paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

Forman and the team also looked at whether players found a “highly gamified” version of this game — which featured enhanced graphic and design elements — more helpful and engaging than the regular, less showy version.

To this effect, they had randomly given each participant one of the two versions to play during the study period. All in all, it did not seem to matter which version the participants played, in terms of how it affected their weight loss efforts or taste for sugary foods.

However, the researchers did notice that men, specifically, tended to find the enhanced version of the game more engaging, relating to it better. Because of this, the investigators are now recruiting participants for a further trial, testing the success of the highly gamified version in training male participants.

The study authors conclude that “Taken as a whole, [the] findings offer qualified support for the use of a computerized cognitive training to facilitate weight loss.” At the same time, they note that future trials must identify the best way to turn the specially designed game into a valuable tool:

However, a great deal of work remains to better understand how to create future trainings that are powerful and engaging enough to exert effects into the long term.”