Food cue reactivity and craving predict eating and weight gain: a meta-analytic review

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According to learning-based models of behavior, food cue reactivity and craving are conditioned responses that lead to increased eating and subsequent weight gain. However, evidence supporting this relationship has been mixed. We conducted a quantitative meta-analysis to assess the predictive effects of food cue reactivity and craving on eating and weight-related outcomes. Across 69 reported statistics from 45 published reports representing 3,292 participants, we found an overall medium effect of food cue reactivity and craving on outcomes (r = 0.33, p < 0.001; approximately 11% of variance), suggesting that cue exposure and the experience of craving significantly influence and contribute to eating behavior and weight gain. Follow-up tests revealed a medium effect size for the effect of both tonic and cue-induced craving on eating behavior (r = 0.33). We did not find significant differences in effect sizes based on body mass index, age, or dietary restraint. However, we did find that visual food cues (e.g. pictures and videos) were associated with a similar effect size to real food exposure and a stronger effect size than olfactory cues. Overall, the present findings suggest that food cue reactivity, cue-induced craving and tonic craving systematically and prospectively predict food-related outcomes. These results have theoretical, methodological, public health and clinical implications.

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