Study: Digital tools helped curb sweets indulgence, but results didn't improve with gamification

A recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found when digital tools were paired with a technique called computerized inhibitory control trainings, participants on average lost a greater percent of their bodyweight than their peers.
By Laura Lovett
02:10 pm

Photo credit: Drexel University

While digital tools may help individuals curb a sweet tooth habit, gamifying those tools doesn’t improve results, according to a recent study published by the Journal of Behavioral Medicine

In the study, researchers developed multiple versions of a platform, including two gamified versions, designed to help overweight individuals cut out sweets. 

Researchers found that participants who had an implicit bias for sweets benefited from platforms that employed a technique, called computerized inhibitory control training (ICT), regardless of whether the platform was gamified or not. 

“In terms of effectiveness, only a subgroup of participants — those with higher implicit preference for sweets — benefited from randomization to ICT versus the sham control,” researchers wrote. “Yet for those who were above the average on this moderator, the effects of ICT were notable. In fact, the rate of weight loss for this subgroup (across eight weeks) is roughly equivalent to in-person behavioral weight loss treatment.”


Participants with that implicit bias towards sweets who participated in ICT training lost 3.3% of their body weight, compared to 2.2% in the sham group that also had that sweet tooth. 

Additionally, around half of the group that had ICT training, whether that be gamified or not, met their weight loss goals. Meanwhile only about a third of those getting the sham platform without the technique met their goal. 

While researchers predicted that gamifying the technology would help improve “accountability and compliance” rates, they found it actually had the opposite effect. 

“Not only was this hypothesis unsupported, it appeared that gamification slightly reduced the impact of ICT,” authors of the study wrote. “One possible explanation for this unexpected finding is that gaming elements (visual surround, music, sound effects) distracted from attention to the core stimuli, reduced the strength of prepotent reward response and thus reduced the fidelity the inhibitory response."


The study included 106 participants from the ages of 18 to 65. Participants’ body mass index (BMI) ranged from 25 (overweight) to 50 (morbidly obese). In order to be included, participants had to be eating three or more servings of high-sugar food on a daily basis. 

At a two-hour workshop participants were given a “food prescription” where they were instructed to avoid foods with added sugar or very low amounts of added sugar. Researchers also gave the participants guidance about how to make those dietary changes.

Researchers then split participants into four groups. Two groups got a gamified platform, but one of these groups used the ICT version while the other got a sham. Researchers gave the other two groups a non-gamified version, and again one group got the ICT version and the other got a sham version. 

Regardless of the assigned group, all participants were instructed to complete 42 daily and two weekly 10-minute trainings over the course of an eight-week period. 

The gamified version “included a premise of moving as fast as possible through a grocery store and putting the correct food in a grocery cart.”  One of those versions included computerized ICTs and the other did not.


The US has long struggled with an obesity problem. In fact, nearly 40% of US adults have obesity, according to the CDC. Obesity increases risk for a variety of health conditions including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary disease. 

More and more digital technologies are coming on the market to tackle this obesity problem. Earlier this week, nutrition-focused startup Noom, landed $58 million in new financing. Scores of dieting apps are on the market, including big names such as Suggestic and Lose It!

Focus on Patient Experience

In May, we'll talk to the thought leaders and first-movers reimagining how and where — Hint: outside their perimeter — and report on how they're to activate if not delight the people they treat.


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