Want to ditch your junk food habit?

22:28, Jul 21 2014
DECISIONS, DECISIONS: A new food-based app gives your brain a workout and develops the ability to make healthier choices more often.

Exercising self-control can be hard, especially when it comes resisting your favourite guilty pleasures.

But thanks to researchers at the University of Wollongong there's an app that can help retrain your brain and help you make healthier food choices.

University psychologist Associate Professor Stuart Johnstone says the app works exactly the same as physical training.

"It's just about exercise: This particular exercise is of psychological process," Professor Johnstone said.

The NoGo app works by helping users exercise mental control and with as few as 10 minutes a day, Professor Johnstone said the app can improve your control in about one week.

The app shows pictures of healthy and unhealthy foods, and users have to tap the healthy food images as quickly as possible while not tapping the unhealthy options.


What this does, Professor Johnstone said, is retrain the psychological process, so people begin to select less unhealthy food in real life too.

"When they're physically restraining from tapping the unhealthy food it exercises that process," Professor Johnstone said.

He says the game, designed by Nerocog, is also designed to become increasingly difficult in order to keep you interested and importantly to keep your brain working hard.

"There are scoring systems and it certainly gets more difficult," Professor Johnstone said.

"The game wants to see if you can achieve a certain level of control, and then pushes you further."

The University of Wollongong is running a trial with adults and teenagers to look at potential benefits this app may have for the treament of obesity.

"There is good potential for this approach to be part of multimodal treatments for adolescent and adult obesity," Professor Johnstone said.

"I think it targets something that's not currently well addressed for overweight and obese people, getting into the psychological behaviour."

It's certainly important for us to have more treatment options for obesity.

The latest figures from a global survey found 31 per cent of adult New Zealanders are classified as obese according to their body mass index. 

University of Sydney's Professor Louise Sharpe said retraining the brain is an area of obesity treatment that needs to be further explored.

She said while there have been few large-scale trials, smaller trials have shown positive results.

"Some trials show promise in cognitive re-mediation - that by training people in executive function there can be improvement," Professor Sharpe said.

She said the University of Wollongong research is much needed if obesity treatment is to improve.

"I think what Stuart Johnstone is doing is a great thing, certainly for obesity, because current treatments are suboptimal," Professor Sharpe said.

However, Professor Sharpe cautioned that the full effects of brain training as a treatment for obesity are still unknown.

"I'm not sure we have the evidence yet that it could have an effect," she said.

"The evidence so far is promising but it's not yet certain."

Professor Johnstone, who has worked on the NoGo project for two years, acknowledges there is still plenty of research to be done but says there are even more applications for the game that are yet to be explored.

"This approach could easily be adapted to help people quit smoking, as part of a treatment program," Professor Johnstone said, adding it could also be used to treat other addictions like alcoholism.

In the meantime, the app is a handy way to give your brain a workout and develop the ability to make healthier choices more often.

Sydney Morning Herald