Behavioral sensitization of the reinforcing value of food: What food and drugs have in common (2016)

Preventive Medicine

Available online 23 June 2016


• The dopamine system underlies both drug abuse and excessive palatable food intake.

• Sensitization of the dopamine system explains persistent drug craving.

• Repeated intake of palatable snack food results in behavioral sensitization in obese adults.

• Behavioral sensitization to repeated snack food administration predicts weight gain.


Sensitization is a basic property of the nervous system whereby repeated exposure to a stimulus results in an increase in responding to that stimulus. This increase in responding contributes to difficulty with treatment of drug abuse, as stimuli associated with substance use become signals or triggers for drug craving and relapse. Our work over the past decade has applied the theoretical framework of incentive sensitization to overeating. We have shown, in several studies, that lean adults do not commonly demonstrate behavioral sensitization after repeated exposure to snack food, but a subset of obese adults reliably does. This review will discuss this change in behavioral response to repeated consumption of snack food in obese individuals and apply the theoretical framework of incentive sensitization to drugs of abuse to high fat/high sugar snack foods. We will also show data that suggest that behavioral sensitization to repeated administration of snack food is predictive of weight gain, which may enhance its utility as a diagnostic tool for identifying at-risk individuals for obesity. Finally, we will discuss the future directions of this line of research, including studying the phenomenon in children and adolescents and determining if similar principles can be used to increase motivation to eat healthier food. A combination of reductions in unhealthy food intake and increases and healthy food intake is necessary to reduce obesity rates and improve health.


  • Reinforcing value of food;
  • Substance use;
  • Behavioral sensitization;
  • Adolescence;
  • Obesity;
  • Motivation