Eating energy-dense foods when one is not hungry is a contributor to obesity and overweight, which are risk factors for a range of cancer-promoting foods.
The goal of this project is to reduce cancer risk by improving cognitive self-regulation of cravings for cancer-promoting foods. We focus on craving of cancer-promoting foods as one proximal determinant of their consumption.
Craving consists of a subjective sense of wanting to eat a food, a motivation to seek out the food, and recurrent or intrusive thoughts related to the food. Considerable research shows that craving is a strong predictor of eating, even in the absence of hunger. Thus, enhancing a simple, low-cost and easily disseminated tool to reduce craving for cancer-promoting foods would meaningfully advance the goal of cancer prevention.
Studies from affective science and social neuroscience have identified cognitive self-regulation strategies that are effective in reducing craving and their associated neural systems. This work has focused mostly on craving for other appetitive stimuli (e.g., drug cues), and has only begun to study regulation of food craving. Recent results from our laboratory validated four strategies that are effective in reducing cravings for ED foods. This work relies upon self-reports of craving, which provide an empirical starting point but do not demonstrate the validity of the strategies on their own. Thus, the goals of the proposed project are to provide additional support for the effectiveness of cognitive self-regulation of food cravings using other measures beyond self-report, and to validate a theoretically grounded means to further increase the efficacy of those strategies—strategy choice. These goals will be accomplished in the context of a single longitudinal study. Obese and overweight participants, who have increased risk of developing cancer, will be randomly assigned to choose their own regulation strategy or to be assigned to one.
Their self-reported cravings and brain activity will be recorded while they alternately view images of ED foods and regulate their responses to those foods. These data will be used to examine the effects of strategy choice on food regulation success (measured by changes in self-reported craving and brain activity). Immediately after the scan and then again 6 months later, participants will monitor their real-life consumption of a personally-craved ED food and report the number of servings they consume 4 times per day via text message.
The difference in number of servings consumed between the two groups will provide a behavioral measure of the efficacy of strategy choice on eating. Also, brain activity in key regions during food reactivity and regulation will be used to predict intake.
Psychological theory and previous neuroscience data suggest that brain activity, particularly in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, will account for ED food intake above and beyond self-report, and will mediate the effect of strategy choice on intake.