A new brain training game help to eat less sugar


More than half of American adults consume excess added sugars, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Major dietary guidelines recommend limiting foods high in added sugars.

According to the USDA, the current estimate of the average sugar intake for adults is about 82 grams every single day, which translates to close to 66 pounds of sugar consumed each year.  

To put that into perspective, it is important to understand the current guidelines recommend for sugar intake.

The American Heart Association, for example, recommends that women should consume no more than six teaspoons of sugar daily.

This is the same as 25 grams of sugar and about 100 calories.

Men should consume no more than nine teaspoons of sugar each day.

This equates to roughly 36 grams of sugar or about 150 calories per day. One 12-ounce can of regular soda contains more than the amount of sugar recommended for an entire day.

Now that you have an idea of how much sugar health authorities recommend each day compare that to what the standard diet contains.

The figure is an average so that some adults will consume way less than this, but that also means there are many people who eat far more than the average.

If the average American consumes 82 grams of sugar a day, that’s the same as 21 teaspoons or about 330 calories daily that come entirely from sugar.

That means that Americans are eating more than double the amount of sugar than they should – and remember, this is just an average.

Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar

When talking about sugar and health, or more specifically, sugar and muscle growth, it’s important to distinguish between natural sugar and added sugar, because they shouldn’t be viewed or treated equally.

When you read food labels with the intent of reducing consumption of foods that are high in sugar, you may be omitting healthy foods for the wrong reasons.

Natural sugars are those naturally present in healthy foods, such as fructose and lactose.

You may want to return that carton of milk to the shelf when you see its nutrition facts label showing 13 grams of sugar, but this sugar comes with nutrients for good health, including protein, calcium and potassium.

And though most carbohydrates in fruits come from sugar, fruits are an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients that improve bowel function and protect you from chronic disease.

On the other hand, added sugars are just that – sugar that’s been added to food by you or by food manufacturers.

This may include the table sugar you stir into your morning coffee or the sugar in your bottle of salad dressing.

How to Find Added Sugar

You have to be a savvy shopper to find added sugar in food.

If you’re trying to limit added sugar in your diet, read the ingredients list before you add the item to your cart.

Ingredients that may indicate added sugar include:

  • Sucrose
  • Maltose
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Fruit juice, concentrated
  • High-fructose corn syrup

It doesn’t matter what type of diet you follow or how much you work out, you need to limit your intake of added sugar.

Too much added sugar may make it harder for you to maintain a healthy weight and may increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

In fact, according to Harvard Health Publishing, too much added sugar in your diet may increase your risk of dying from heart disease even if you’re at a healthy weight.

How much of the sweet stuff you can have depends on your gender.

According to the American Heart Association, women should limit their daily intake of added sugar to no more than 100 calories a day and men to no more than 150 calories a day.

This translates into no more than 20 grams of added sugar for women and 38 grams for men.

A recent study led by Evan Forman, PhD, a psychology professor in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, shows that a computer game can be used to train its players to eat less sugar, as a way of reducing their weight and improving their health.

“Added sugar is one of the biggest culprits of excess calories and is also associated with several health risks including cancer,” said Forman, who also leads the Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science (WELL Center) at Drexel.

“For these reasons, eliminating added sugar from a person’s diet results in weight loss and reduced risk of disease.”

As part of their study, which was recently published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, the researchers developed and evaluated a “brain training” game targeting the part of the brain that inhibits impulses with the hope that it would improve diet, specifically by decreasing the consumption of sweet foods.

Think Lumosity for your diet.

“Cognitive, or ‘brain, training’ games have been used to help people reduce unhealthy habits, like smoking,” said Forman.

“We were also seeing positive results from labs using computer training programs.”

This research is the first to examine the impact of this type of “highly personalized and/or gamified inhibitory control training” on weight loss using repeated, at-home training, according to Forman.

Forman’s group conceptualized a game based on cognitive training and worked with Michael Wagner, a professor and head of the Digital Media department in Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, and a group of digital media students to develop it into a computer-based game, called “Diet DASH,” for purposes of the study.

The game automatically customized the training to focus on the sweets that each participant tended to eat and adjusted the difficulty according to how well they were resisting the temptation of sweets.

The trial randomized 109 participants who were overweight and ate sweets. Participants attended a workshop prior to starting the game to help them understand why sugar is detrimental to their health and to learn which foods to avoid and methods for doing so.

“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,” said Forman.

“The daily training could make or break a person’s ability to follow the no-added-sugar diet.

They strengthen the part of your brain to not react to the impulse for sweets.”

Participants then played the game on a computer for a few minutes every day for six weeks and then again once a week for two weeks.

This is a still from the grocery store brain training game

In the game, players move as quickly as possible through a grocery store while putting healthy foods in a grocery cart and refraining from choosing the sweets. The image is credited to Drexel University.

In the game, players move as quickly as possible through a grocery store with the goal of putting the correct food (healthy foods) in a grocery cart, while refraining from choosing the incorrect foods (their preferred sweet).

Points were awarded for correct items placed in carts.

For over half of the participants, who showed higher preferences toward sweets, playing the game helped them lose as much as 3.1 percent of their body weight over eight weeks.

Participants also indicated that they found the daily training satisfactory, that it became part of their daily routine and that they wished to continue the training if they were available.

“The study’s findings offer qualified support for the use of a computerized cognitive training to facilitate weight loss,” said Forman.

The study also randomized whether participants received a highly gamified (enhanced graphics and sounds) or less-gamified versions of the training.

While the difference between the level of gamification did not matter, overall, to whether participants reduced sugar consumption and lost weight, they did find that the few men in the study reacted better to the highly gamified version than the women in the study.

The WELL Center is now conducting a new trial with the highly gamified version of this training specifically for men and is actively recruiting participants.

Funding: The study, “Computerized Neurocognitive Training for Improving Dietary Health and Facilitating Weight Loss,” was funded by the National Cancer Institute. It was published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in March 2019. Co-authors include Stephanie Manasse, PhD; Meghan Butryn, PhD; Adrienne Juarascio, PhD; Diane Dallal, doctoral student; Rebecca Crochiere, doctoral student; and Caitlin Loyka, masters student, of Drexel University.

For more information about “Diet Dash,” the WELL Center and its programs, visit drexel.edu/wellcenter.

Drexel University
Media Contacts: 
Annie Korp – Drexel University
Image Source:
The image is credited to Drexel University.

Original Research: Closed access
“Computerized neurocognitive training for improving dietary health and facilitating weight loss”.Evan M. Forman, Stephanie M. Manasse, Diane H. Dallal, Rebecca. J. Crochiere, Caitlin M. Loyka, Meghan L. Butryn, Adrienne S. Juarascio, and Katrijn Houben.
Journal of Behavioral Medicine doi:10.1007/s10865-019-00024-5


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