Your new favorite mobile app helps you keep your diet on track


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Even with the most honorable of intentions, it can be really difficult to stick to a healthy diet. Whether you're trying to drop a few pounds or simply trying to maintain a healthy weight, temptation is always there. But now, thanks to researchers at Drexel University, you can resist that temptation. They have designed a computer game and a smartphone app to train your brain to kick unhealthy habits and stay the course.


Keeping you in mind

The game is designed to improve the "inhibitory control" — the part of the brain that stops you from giving into unhealthy cravings — while the mobile app detects patterns in a user's eating habits. When it senses you are in danger of slipping from your dietary plans, the app offers helpful, tailored strategies to put you back on track. The researchers at Drexel are now seeking participants for studies using each of the innovations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 69% of adults living in Philadelphia are overweight or obese. While a number of factors contribute to the city's obesity epidemic, says Dr. Evan Forman, professor of psychology at Drexel, often the mind is the greatest barrier when it comes to losing weight. It's been shown, he says, that sweet foods trigger the same feel-good brain chemicals as addictive drugs.

"Millions of people are trying to lose weight, and they are going about it in a reasonable way - by trying to reduce calories. But you're going to slip from your diet plan. That pretty much happens to everyone," Forman says. "You could say the secret of helping people actually lose weight is preventing these lapses, so we concentrated on how to best do that."


Resistance is useful

Diet-busting deliciousness is always around us, sitting there like a Siren on the shores of ruin. There's "a powerful part of your mind that drives you toward things that taste good and feel good," Forman says. Often your immediate reaction is to resist the craving but, according to Forman, that reaction is typically slower and less strong than the initial pleasure-seeking impulse. "However," he adds, "studies have shown that if you do certain tasks that involve this inhibitory control over and over again, it actually gets stronger."

Forman and his team of researchers tested this theory in a recent study. A number of habitual snack eaters were assigned to one of four short, training exercises designed to increase their awareness of their decision-making and to strengthen their inhibitory control. The results showed that both types of training were effective at reducing snacking. The researchers are now looking to find out whether inhibitory control training can help participants reduce consumption of sugary foods, and so lose weight.


Frequent fryer

The new training game — called DietDash — first asks participants the types of unhealthy foods they eat most frequently. Based on the information shared, it then provides one of four versions of a game customized to their diet. The unhealthy items the participant lists as his or her favorite treats will appear in the game. Players are then asked to respond to different types of images — these include pictures of tasty sugary items as well as healthy foods.

The game is played for eight minutes per day, every day for six weeks and, as the player's inhibitory control improves, the speed of the game increases. Though other studies have shown this type of training at least temporarily affects eating habits, the researchers want to know what happens over a two month course. "The study is really the first to attempt to train people for weeks in a row," Forman said. "We think this can translate to real-world behaviors, because just like any task, it improves with practice."


Staying alert

The researchers' second design is a weight loss app called DietAlert, which was developed with help from Weight Watchers and the Obesity Society. Used in conjunction with the Weight Watchers app, DietAlert collects information about users' eating habits and uses it to predict those times when someone is most likely to ruin their diet — for example, by eating junk food after lunch because they have skipped breakfast.

As the app learns about the user's eating patterns, it can send out both alerts and tips to help users stick to a healthier diet. "Part of the difficulty with a diet plan stems from an inability to determine and target factors that continue to cause lapses over and over again," Forman says. DietAlert's approach is new because, unlike hundreds of other diet applications available, it not only tracks a person's eating habits, but also uses that information to give personalized advice.

By doing this, says Forman, the app "targets each individual person exactly when they need the help." Once the study is complete, Forman says the computer game could also be developed into a mobile app. The project is funded with a grant from the National Institutes of Health.