Reward sensitivity and food addiction in women (2016)

Appetite. 2016 Oct 15. pii: S0195-6663(16)30577-3. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2016.10.022.

Loxton NJ1, Tipman RJ2.

Author information

  • 1School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University, Brisbane, Q. 4122, Australia; Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Q. 4072, Australia. Electronic address: [email protected].
  • 2School of Psychology, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Q. 4072, Australia.


Sensitivity to the rewarding properties of appetitive substances has long been implicated in excessive consumption of palatable foods and drugs of abuse. Previous research focusing on individual differences in reward responsiveness has found heightened trait reward sensitivity to be associated with binge-eating, hazardous drinking, and illicit substance use.

Food addiction has been proposed as an extreme form of compulsive-overeating and has been associated with genetic markers of heightened reward responsiveness. However, little research has explicitly examined the association between reward sensitivity and food addiction. Further, the processes by which individual differences in this trait are associated with excessive over-consumption has not been determined.

A total of 374 women from the community completed an online questionnaire assessing reward sensitivity, food addiction, emotional, externally-driven, and hedonic eating. High reward sensitivity was significantly associated with greater food addiction symptoms (r = 0.31).

Bootstrapped tests of indirect effects found the relationship between reward sensitivity and food addiction symptom count to be uniquely mediated by binge-eating, emotional eating, and hedonic eating (notably, food availability). These indirect effects held even when controlling for BMI, anxiety, depression, and trait impulsivity. This study further supports the argument that high levels of reward sensitivity may offer a trait marker of vulnerability to excessive over-eating, beyond negative affect and impulse-control deficits. That the hedonic properties of food (especially food availability), emotional, and binge-eating behavior act as unique mediators suggest that interventions for reward-sensitive women presenting with food addiction may benefit from targeting food availability in addition to management of negative affect.

KEYWORDS: Food addiction; Hedonic eating; Personality; Reinforcement sensitivity theory; Reward sensitivity

PMID: 27756640

DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2016.10.022