Brain systems for controlling food cravings

Nicole Giuliani writes:

Many of us spend a great deal of time and effort managing our temptations to indulge in food we know isn’t good for us. One of the ways that we do this is by thinking differently about that food, for example, by saying to ourselves, “sure that donut looks delicious, but man there must be a lot of lard in there and I know how quickly those calories will add up.” This process of mental reframing, called reappraisal, has been studied extensively in the realm of negative emotions, but hardly at all as it applies to positive emotions such as food cravings. And science knows even less about how someone’s ability to reappraise relates to real-world measures of actual eating. My colleagues Elliot Berkman, Traci Mann, Janet Tomiyama and I recently published a study using neuroimaging to explore what happens in the brain when people use reappraisal to control their temptations to indulge in unhealthy foods. We found that reappraising food craving engages parts of the brain involved in other kinds of self-control and reappraisal of negative emotions. This result supports the idea that many forms of impulse can be regulated by one, “domain-general” brain system. Furthermore, brain activity was associated with body mass index (BMI) in several ways. More reward-related brain activity during unhealthy food viewing was related to higher BMI, more control-related brain activity during reappraisal was related to lower BMI, and greater regulation-related brain activity reduced the link between reactivity-related brain activity and BMI. This set of results is important because it indicates that there might be a common neural network underlying the ability to reappraise the emotional content of anything, and that your ability to see the bright side of a bad situation may be related to your weight. We will follow up on each of these possibilities in future research.


This study also investigated whether personal preferences play a role in reappraisal. We all know that resisting temptation can be harder when you particularly like the food in question. The upside is that people were just as successful if not moreso in reappraising their desires for unhealthy foods they really liked versus ones they din’t like as much. However, a comparison of the brain activity for reappraising cravings for these two types of foods revealed some interesting patterns. Not surprisingly, many of the brain areas involved in food craving reappraisal had to work a lot harder to reappraise the desire to eat the foods that participants especially liked compared to ones they didn’t. Interestingly, there were some additional brain regions that were active exclusively during reappraisal of personally desired foods, and not for reappraisal in general. This is important for both brain researchers and brain owners. For brain researchers, this result indicates that scientists need to take into account how personally relevant the experimental stimuli are when they analyze their data. For brain owners, our results demonstrate that there may be some special mental tricks for controlling those desires to indulge junk food temptations.

Citation info: Giuliani, N.R., Mann, T., Tomiyama, A.J., & Berkman, E.T. (in press). Neural systems underlying the reappraisal of personally-craved foods. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. [pdf]

About Elliot Berkman

Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon Director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab Associate Director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience
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