An app created by the University of Exeter could help people reduce the amount of potentially harmful ultra processed foods (UPFs) they eat.
The Food Trainer (FoodT) app trains people to inhibit responding to particular foods. A new version of the app – which is free to download – allows users to upload pictures of the foods they find particularly hard to resist. These pictures are then used in a simple game which users play for a few minutes each day.
UPFs include many of the things commonly referred to as ‘junk food’, such as crisps, chocolate, and cakes. They are industrially produced, often have high fat and sugar content, and contain ingredients not available in home kitchens. Recent studies have suggested that UPFs could be as addictive as tobacco or alcohol, because of their ability to rapidly activate brain reward mechanisms.
Dr Natalia Lawrence of the University of Exeter developed the app and said: “We know that if you eat highly rewarding foods, your brain subsequently makes you pay more attention to them and triggers a motor response to approach and eat them. These processes can be very rapid and unconscious and are hard to control using willpower – it’s a bit like trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.
“The app tries to retrain your automatic responses. Instead of seeing these foods and having an activation response of approaching, picking up, and eating the food, it replaces that with a stop response. It’s a very simple game, but at a cognitive level it’s changing the associations between a food and a response.”
The app, which first launched in 2017, has now had more than 100,000 downloads. It has users from across the world and has recently been translated into five other languages. Studies show that immediately after doing this type of training, people eat around 30-percent less UPFs. In the longer term, research shows a daily intake reduction of more than 200 calories and the loss of around 1kg in body weight in the first month.
Dr Natalia Lawrence said: “Our research shows not only do you choose and eat these foods less after the training, but you also like them less. You’re effectively changing your memory for the reward value and response to the food. Following a lot of user feedback, we recently developed a new version where people can put their own pictures into the game – so users can really tailor the training to their own needs.
“It’s a new cognitive approach to tackling the problem of overeating. Historically people have been encouraged to improve their diets through education, calorie restriction, and willpower. These can work but take a lot of effort and are hard to keep up. The app takes the blame away from the user because it’s saying, ‘you can’t help the fact your brain’s triggering these responses to foods before you’re even consciously aware of what’s going on’. We need new tools like this that weaken those automatic responses to potentially addictive foods and make resisting easier.”
FoodT users who consent for their data to be used – anonymously – have enabled the research and app improvements to be made. For more information on the app, including videos on how to use it, visit https://www.exeter.ac.uk/research/foodt/