Background: Changing eating behaviour may be challenging for individuals with obesity and this may be related to attentional bias towards food. Previous paradigms used to assess attentional bias to food stimuli have not distinguished between bottom-up processes related to assessment of rewarding stimuli versus top-down processes related to effects of mind-set on attention. We investigated whether attentional bias for food cues varies between individuals with overweight/obesity and healthy weight individuals, due to differential top-down control of attention. We also determined whether top-down biases predict food consumption in the lab and weight change in our sample over one-year.
Methods: Forty-three participants with overweight/obesity and 49 healthy weight participants between the ages of 18 and 58 participated. Participants completed two attention tasks in a counterbalanced order: (i) a priming task assessing bottom-up control of attention and (ii) a working memory task assessing top-down control of attention. Eating behaviour was assessed by a taste test. At one-year follow-up participants returned to the laboratory to assess changes in their body mass index (BMI).
Results: The healthy weight and overweight/obese groups did not differ in demographics and baseline measures (appetite, food liking, taste test food intake). Participants with overweight/obesity showed greater top-down attentional bias towards food cues than did healthy weight participants but had no difference in bottom-up attentional bias. Top down attentional bias towards food cues predicted weight change over one-year but did not predict food intake in the taste test.
Conclusions: The present findings illustrate that the relationship between attentional bias for food, food intake, and body weight is complex. Top-down effects of mind-set on attention, rather than bottom-up control of attention to food may contribute to patterns of eating that result in development and/or maintenance of overweight/obesity. Interventions targeted at top down biases could be effective in facilitating prevention of weight gain.