The Healthy Eating Study is an innovative translational neuroscience experiment designed to help higher-weight individuals help manage food cravings.
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Participants in the Healthy Eating Study study receive two MRI brain scans, 5 Bod Pod body composition assessments, and a set of neural, behavioral, self-report, and physiological assessments over the course of 13 months. 200 participants have enrolled in the study so far, and at the end of data collection we will have scanned 249 brains for 747 hours.
Higher weight and intake of certain foods increase cancer risk, but the most common treatment (behavioral weight loss programs) rarely produces lasting weight loss and eating behavior change, potentially in part due to caloric restriction increasing the reward value of food and prompting energy-sparing adaptations. Interventions that reduce the implicit valuation of cancer-risk foods (e.g., charred meats, refined sugar) may be more effective.
Emerging data suggest that behavioral response training and cognitive reappraisal training reduce valuation of such foods, which leads to decrease intake of these foods and weight loss. Internalized incentive value is reflected in a ventromedial prefrontal/orbitofrontal cortex valuation system (“vmPFC”), which encodes the implicit reward value of food and is central to a reinforcement cycle that perpetuates unhealthy eating. Thus, the vmPFC valuation system is a promising target for intervention because changes to the system might disrupt the unhealthy reinforcement cycle. Interestingly, various interventions influence the vmPFC through distinct pathways. Behavioral training alters motor input to valuation regions, whereas cognitive training relies on lateral prefrontal “top-down” regions.
The Healthy Eating Study compares the efficacy with which two novel treatments cause lasting change in food valuation, and whether a composite of theory-based baseline individual differences in relevant processes (such as response tendencies and cognitive styles) moderate treatment effects.
The study is in the process of randomizing 249 higher-weight adults who are at risk for eating- and weight-related cancers to behavioral response training toward healthy foods and away from cancer-risk foods, a cognitive reappraisal intervention focused on cancer-risk foods, or non–food inhibitory control training.