Can you lose weight by changing your psychology with brain training apps?

Weight loss. It’s as simple as calories in, calories out, right?  

Just diet and exercise to create the all-important calorie deficit, and you’ll lose weight.  

Easy in theory, but much more difficult in practice.   

Humans are messy and complex creatures subject to myriad influences that make the weight loss process anything but straightforward.   

However, researchers at the University of Cardiff believe that the key to long-term weight loss success lies in changing our psychology.  

Building on previous research, they want to test the theory that brain training games can help reprogram our behaviours around food, according to this article in The BBC.

They have commissioned a large-scale study (you can join in and download the app here) looking at whether 15 minutes of app gaming a day can tap into our base instincts, bias our behaviours towards healthy foods and help us redefine our ingrained rules and patterns around eating.   

So can training your brain with an app really help you lose weight?  

While the real research is still to be done, the idea is not as farfetched as you might think.  

We know from research into the causes of obesity that it is mostly our conditioning and environment that lead us to certain behaviours that cause weight gain.  

If we drill down into why people become overweight, there are three key factors to consider:  

  • Our genetics  
  • Our environment  
  • Our behaviour  

Let’s look at these in a little more detail. 

Genetics  

Many people claim that being overweight is part of their genetics and this may be partly true.   

We know, for instance, that the probability a child will be overweight is related to the parents’ weight.   

Having one obese parent makes you 40% more likely to be obese, which becomes 80% when both parents are obese. The probability that thin parents will produce overweight children is only around 7% [2].  

However, one problem with this theory is that it doesn’t account for the fact that our genetics have not fundamentally changed over the last 50 years but high-calorie, highly palatable foods have become increasingly available.   

For instance, studies looking at diaspora populations have found that among Nigerians living in Nigeria, 5% of the population is obese compared to 39% for those Nigerians living in the U.S.   

For Japanese people living in Japan, the rate is 4% but this 39% for those living in Brazil [4]. This indicates that there must be something in their environments beyond pure genetics driving obesity.  

Social networking studies have shown that BMI clusters within groups. While our weight is partially determined by our parents, it is also determined by our social circle.   

If our friends are leaner, healthier and more active, we are more likely to be so too. However, if they also have poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles, we are more likely to mimic this environment [5].  

Given that genetics and social circumstances only account for some of the factors influencing obesity, there must be other elements at play.  

Environment  

We live in an ‘obesogenic’ environment. This is an environment characterised by prevalent food advertising, ubiquitous cheap and processed foods, and almost immediate gratification from a whole host of high-calorie, hyper-palatable ‘products’, which means that it is harder than ever to say ‘no’.   

For many, this results in decreased shopping and food preparation and more eating out and on-the-go [6].   

Combined with a decline in manual labour and an increase in high-stress, sedentary jobs, arrived at in cars or public transport, we have created the perfect recipe for today’s obesity crisis.   

Even when we try to be more active, lifts, escalators, urban design, and town planning make us less inclined or able to walk [7].   

Declining rates of sleep quality and increased stress levels play havoc with our cravings and hunger, and satiety hormones. In sum, this obesogenic environment is a world in which it is easy to gain weight, and it requires effort to remain thin.   

However, not everyone is overweight, so why is it a problem for some and not others? 

Behaviour  

When and why we eat are mostly driven by behavioural triggers from our environment. From a young age, we begin to learn what kinds of foods we like and don’t like through our parents, friends and the media. This often takes place through a process of reward and association [8].   

For instance, you were probably told to ‘eat your vegetables before you can have pudding’.   

We are also primed to turn to food and drink as a coping mechanism when we aren’t feeling well or experiencing low mood. How often have you been encouraged to eat chocolate when you feel low or ice cream when you’re sick? Right off the bat, we begin to associate high-calorie foods as a reward that makes us feel special and better, and the “healthy” foods as boring or undesirable [9].   

We also heavily associate food with social interaction. Food is a core element in nearly all cultures, whether that is a weekly family dinner, weddings, birthdays, religious holidays or even weekend brunch with friends.   

We also use food to make declarations about who we are as people, whether we are “healthy” eaters, vegetarian or “I eat anything”. Both of these factors mean that food plays a huge part in our identity and how we perceive ourselves and others [10].  

Food also has a high association with guilt and negativity. For instance, you may try to deny yourself a type of food you love, which only lasts so long before you break. Amid the ensuing guilt, you overeat more than you would have otherwise done to make yourself feel better [11].   

Conversely, food also has positive and reward connotations. For instance, we often associate it with a reward or’ treat’ when we’ve been good [12]. On a psychological level, this comes down to palatability, enticing packaging, and a strong dopamine hit to boot.   

These reward cycles are all based on a concept called “future discounting”. This means that most of the time, we focus more on the immediate benefits of our actions rather than their long-term consequences [13, 14].   

Whether it’s eating, drinking, smoking or any other pleasure-driven behaviour that has negative consequences, we perform a cost-benefit analysis in which we weigh up the pros against the cons. Most of the time, the benefits, i.e. feeling a bit better right now, win against the long-term risks of guilt, obesity, diabetes, cancer or heart disease, etc.   

Most of the time, what and how we eat directly correlates to what is occurring in our environment in the here and the now.  

Nine simple strategies to hack our psychology for successful weight loss  

So, if we know our psychology is our biggest barrier to making healthy choices that help us maintain a healthy weight, what can we do about it?  

While we are waiting on the outcome of the brain training app study, there are plenty of actionable strategies that you can use to hack your psychology and make the weight loss process easier.  

Here are just a few tactics that we teach our clients at Ultimate Performance to help them manage their weight long-term:  

1.Find your ‘why’  

Many of us want to lose weight. But for most people, reducing the number on the scale isn’t so much of a motivator to get you fired up and staying on track.   

Scratch the surface, however, and we can begin to dig into the real underlying motivators that will get you fired up. Think ‘I want to lose weight, because…’ The answer could be anything. I want to look amazing at my wedding. I want to find a new partner. I want to be a healthy role model for my children. Whatever your unique ‘why’, connect to it, keep it front of mind, and when the lure of the takeaways comes calling, it will make you think twice.  

2. Set goals  

There’s nothing worse than having a nebulous goal like ‘I want to lose weight’ or ‘I want to get fit’. There’s no way of measuring progress, and there is no endpoint, so you will never achieve them.  

So instead, set a SMART goal – that’s a goal that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. So instead of saying ‘I want to lose some weight’, a better goal would be ‘I want to lose 10kg (specific) of body fat in 15 weeks (measurable, achievable, time-bound), so I can look great for my holiday’ (relevant).  

It’s amazing how having a clear, precise and measurable goal can change your psychology and make weight loss goals seem more achievable.   

3. Start forward planning  

Everyone can start a diet or training program, but not everyone can stick to them consistently enough to see results.  

While some of it might be down to poor goal setting, things go wrong for most people when they are stressed, tired or poorly organised.  

So a little forward planning each week can go a long way to avoiding these pitfalls. Plan and prepare your meals, so you don’t go hungry. Schedule in your workouts like important meetings, so you tick them off. Make food decisions the day before when you are not hungry and tired.   

4. Eat more consistently  

Consistency goes a long way. If you keep consistent meal times, you are less likely to go hungry and put yourself in a position where you are at risk of making poor food choices.  

If you consistently maintain a lower variety of foods, you can take advantage of the reduced palatability of the diet, which we know reduces the total consumption of food and calories.    

5. Engineer your food environment   

As the old saying goes, ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This is a good mantra to keep in mind when adapting your food environment to support adherence and dietary success.  

If you know you are prone to raiding the ‘treat drawer’, get rid of all the treats in your house. If you know you like to raid the fridge at night, plan in activities like walking or exercise in the evening that will keep you occupied and away from temptation. There are plenty of ways you can hack the environment around you to prevent you from making poor food choices. Get creative.   

6. Reduce the burden of ‘food decisions’  

There are so many decisions we need to take over the course of an average day. Research shows that we can get ‘decision fatigue’, which can lead to poor decision making or impulsive behaviours which don’t support your weight loss goals.  

So the best way around this is to plan ahead with your food and even prep your meals ahead of time, so when you come home tired and hungry, the decision has already been made earlier (when you were better equipped to make the right decisions for your health).  

7. Practice good stress management   

As we mentioned, people’s weight loss efforts often fall apart when they are tired, stressed or disorganised. Stress is endemic in our lives nowadays. So it’s important to be able to examine your lifestyle, understand the stressors impacting your life, and recognising the triggers. This is the foundation of being able to build good stress management mechanisms and habits into your day-to-day life, which will mitigate against potential bad decisions with food. This might include breathing techniques, meditation, walking, exercise, reading, or even taking up a non-fitness-related hobby or activity.  

8. Get support and accountability from a friend or professional  

A problem shared is a problem halved, or so goes the old adage. Research bears this out. People with good social support have more long-term success with weight loss attempts. Sharing your goal, sending ‘action commitments’ or regular progress reports to a supportive family member or support group correlates with significantly higher rates of success when it comes to losing weight.   

9. Work with an expert   

The gold standard of support and accountability that can increase success rates of weight loss by 30% is working with a fitness professional. Having an expert in your corner means you not only can relinquish the stress of thinking and planning your diet and training, but you also have an objective outsider able to guide, educate and motivate you through the ups and downs inevitable in any weight loss journey.   

IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE TO START TO GET FIT, PUT YOUR HEALTH IN OUR HANDS AND SEE WHAT YOU CAN ACHIEVE. ENQUIRE HERE

References

1. World Health Organisation (2016). Obesity and overweight. www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/retreived 21/08/2020.
2. Ogden, J. (2018), The Psychology of Dieting, Routledge, New York, pp. 11-12.
3. Kopelman, P. (1999). Aetiology of obesity II: Genetics, in Obesity: The Report of the British Nutrition Foundation Task Force, pp. 39-44. Oxford: Blackwell Science.
4. Misra, A. and Ganda, O. P. (2007). Migration and its impact on adiposity and type 2 diabetes. Nutrition, September, 23 (9), 696-708.
5. Christakis, N.A. and Fowler, J. H. (2007). The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. New England Journal of Medicine, July 26, 357 (4), 370-379.
6. Hill, J.O. and Peters J.C. (1998). Environmental contributions to the obesity epidemic. Science, 280 (5368), 1371-1374.
7. Ogden, J. (2018), The Psychology of Dieting, pg. 13.
8. Ogden, J. (2018), The Psychology of Dieting, pg. 16.
9. Birch, L.L. (1999). Development of food preferences. Annual Review of Nutrition, 19, 41-62.
10. Ogden, J. (2018), The Psychology of Dieting, pg. 17.
11. Polivy, J. and Herman, C. P. (2985). Dieting and binging: a causal analysis. American Psychology, February, 40 (2) 193 -201.
12. Ogden, J. (2018), The Psychology of Dieting, pg. 18.
13. Ogden, J. (2018), The Psychology of Dieting, pg. 18.
14. Hall, P. A. and Fong G. T. (2007) Temporal self-regulation theory: A model for individual health behaviour. Health Psychology Review, 1 (1), 6-52