Foods are differentially associated with subjective effect report questions of abuse liability (2017)

PLoS One. 2017 Aug 31;12(8):e0184220. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0184220. eCollection 2017.

Schulte EM1, Smeal JK1, Gearhardt AN1.



The current study investigates which foods may be most implicated in addictive-like eating by examining how nutritionally diverse foods relate to loss of control consumption and various subjective effect reports. Subjective effect reports assess the abuse liabilities of substances and may similarly provide insight into which foods may be reinforcing in a manner that triggers an addictive-like response for some individuals.




Online community.


507 participants (n = 501 used in analyses) recruited through Amazon MTurk.


Participants (n = 501) self-reported how likely they were to experience a loss of control over their consumption of 30 nutritionally diverse foods and rated each food on five subjective effect report questions that assess the abuse liability of substances (liking, pleasure, craving, averseness, intensity). Hierarchical cluster analytic techniques were used to examine how foods grouped together based on each question.


Highly processed foods, with added fats and/or refined carbohydrates, clustered together and were associated with greater loss of control, liking, pleasure, and craving. The clusters yielded from the subjective effect reports assessing liking, pleasure, and craving were most similar to clusters formed based on loss of control over consumption, whereas the clusters yielded from averseness and intensity did not meaningfully differentiate food items.


The present work applies methodology used to assess the abuse liability of substances to understand whether foods may vary in their potential to be associated with addictive-like consumption. Highly processed foods (e.g., pizza, chocolate) appear to be most related to an indicator of addictive-like eating (loss of control) and several subjective effect reports (liking, pleasure, craving). Thus, these foods may be particularly reinforcing and capable of triggering an addictive-like response in some individuals. Future research is warranted to understand whether highly processed foods are related to these indicators of abuse liability at a similar magnitude as addictive substances.

PMID: 28859162

PMCID: PMC5578654

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0184220