Let the games begin:

Play your way to a healthier diet

Credit: Oscar Munuera, Cancer Research UK

Credit: Oscar Munuera, Cancer Research UK

What if we could approach healthy eating like we would a game, as a fun challenge?

And what if games themselves could help us squash cravings for the foods we want to cut down on?

We take a closer look at how games can support healthier eating habits with Dr Natalia Lawrence, a neuroscientist using brain training techniques to reduce food cravings. 

Picture the scene: you've made a new year's resolution to eat more healthily. You know it helps with keeping a healthy weight and lowering cancer risk.  

But then you're in the supermarket, walking past the bakery.

Something catches your eye: a doughnut, a piece of chocolate cake, a cookie.

It’s like it’s calling to you.

Suddenly, you're imagining eating it.

The more you try and resist it, the stronger the urge to pick that doughnut up and put it in your basket (or your mouth) seems to get.

What were you shopping for in the first place, anyway?

Video by Miguel Á. Padriñán, Pexels

Video by Miguel Á. Padriñán, Pexels

Doughnuts are a recent invention, but our brains are actually hardwired to love them. Thousands of years before supermarkets, a preference for foods high in fat and sugar helped our distant ancestors stay alive.  

Dr Natalia Lawrence, a neuroscientist from the University of Exeter, has looked closely at what that means for us today.  

“Whenever you do any rewarding activity, you increase activity in the dopamine system,” she explains.

“Foods that are high in fat and sugar do that really effectively. Lots of processed foods have been engineered to be highly rewarding to the human brain – far more than anything that we would encounter in nature.”  

This brain activity starts before we're even aware of it, with what neuroscientists call a ‘cue’. That’s something in the outside world that triggers a response in our brains, like the sight of a doughnut.  

“Every time you see a cue, even if you're not consciously paying attention to it or thinking about it, it's going to activate your brain's reward system and generate a desire for that reward,” says Lawrence.

“Before you know what's going on, your brain's already triggered that urge. So, essentially, we're always trying to rein in impulses after they've been triggered.” 

So, on the one hand, we can see that there are good reasons for finding it so hard to cut down on things that we know we should eat less of. On the other hand, if these hard-wired urges are starting before we even know about them, tackling them sounds like really hard work.  

But what if it wasn't work?

What if it was play?  

Credit: Dr Natalia Lawrence

Credit: Dr Natalia Lawrence

Lawrence and her team have created a free brain-training program called 'FoodT' to help people find a way around their brains' hard-wired tendency to make us crave and go for certain foods. It's available online or as an app and challenges players to tap on images of the healthier foods they would like to eat more of while not responding to those they want to cut down on. The aim is to help users' brains learn to link cues like biscuits or crisps with inhibition rather than approach, so they don’t feel such a powerful pull towards them. Lawrence calls it “putting on the brakes”. 

“Instead of having to consciously exert willpower and self-control, people just have to sit and play this game,” she explains. “It's training our automatic responses and unconscious mind.”  

The game won’t stop players enjoying the taste of cookies or cake. It’s designed to help reduce the automatic desire people can feel for foods high in fat and sugar, so they become something players can take or leave.  

So, why did Lawrence and her team decide to use a game to help people make healthier food choices? How can framing something as play help us change our habits?  

Well, to start, Lawrence points out that thinking about goals as personal challenges – for example, giving something up for a whole month – can perhaps be a bit more fun. 

“But there's also the fact that some of these games are not taking the usual approaches that people have been trying and struggling with for years,” she says. “They're actually training the brain in a way that none of the traditional advice that we give people does. Winning points and trying to keep beating reaction times in the game is a way of making it a little bit more engaging and easier to stick to doing.”  

Lawrence and her team have created a free brain-training program called 'FoodT' to help people find a way around their brains' hard-wired tendency to make us crave and go for certain foods. It's available online or as an app and challenges players to tap on images of the healthier foods they would like to eat more of while not responding to those they want to cut down on. The aim is to help users' brains learn to link cues like biscuits or crisps with inhibition rather than approach, so they don’t feel such a powerful pull towards them. Lawrence calls it “putting on the brakes”. 

“Instead of having to consciously exert willpower and self-control, people just have to sit and play this game,” she explains. “It's training our automatic responses and unconscious mind.”  

The game won’t stop players enjoying the taste of cookies or cake. It’s designed to help reduce the automatic desire people can feel for foods high in fat and sugar, so they become something players can take or leave.  

So, why did Lawrence and her team decide to use a game to help people make healthier food choices? How can framing something as play help us change our habits?  

Well, to start, Lawrence points out that thinking about goals as personal challenges – for example, giving something up for a whole month – can perhaps be a bit more fun. 

“But there's also the fact that some of these games are not taking the usual approaches that people have been trying and struggling with for years,” she says. “They're actually training the brain in a way that none of the traditional advice that we give people does. Winning points and trying to keep beating reaction times in the game is a way of making it a little bit more engaging and easier to stick to doing.”  

Other researchers have looked at whether games can do more than change how our brains respond to cues. We might be able to use them to shrink cravings after noticing them, too.  

Remember the supermarket we imagined visiting earlier? Examples like that help to show how food cravings work. When we’re craving pizza, our minds fill up with pictures of pizza. Although other senses such as smell and taste are involved, cravings are often a very visual experience. So are lots of games. 

Here’s why that matters. Generating craving images takes brain power. We’ve only got so much of that, so giving the brain another exciting visual focus might actually reduce its ability to create cravings. For example, some studies suggest that lining up colourful shapes in the video game Tetris could reduce the strength of cravings, including for foods.  

It isn’t just about screens. If you'd like to try this without a computer or mobile device, you could try doing a jigsaw or playing a card game, which also involve paying attention to colours and shapes. Or try some other ideas and see what works for you! 

If you'd like to bring a games mindset to making healthy changes, you could also try challenging yourself or a friend to: 

  • Get as many helpings of fruit and veg as you can each week; 
  • Get to 10,000 steps as quickly as you can; 
  • Go for a month (or more!) without drinking alcohol; 
  • Make and play 'healthy habits bingo’ with healthy habits in the squares for you to tick off; 
  • See how many 'meat free Mondays' you can do in a row, with bonus points for using a new healthy recipe. 

Dr Lawrence is delighted with the response to FoodT so far. “It's really exciting for a researcher to be able to translate basic science findings into an intervention that quickly and then to share it with people and get loads of positive feedback,” she says.  

“If you're in it to try and improve people's lives, then the most meaningful thing is when you get emails from people saying, ‘Thank you – I've been dieting and nothing's ever worked, but this really changed how I feel about food and my ability to eat in the way that I want to.’ That's kind of priceless, really.” 

For information on what a healthy balanced diet looks like, how it can reduce your risk of cancer and ideas for healthy food swaps, head to our diet webpages. If you have any history of disordered eating or think you might be at risk of eating disorders, speak to your doctor before making any changes to your eating habits.

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