Food craving, cortisol and ghrelin responses in modeling highly palatable snack intake in the laboratory

Physiol Behav. 2019 Sep 1:208:112563. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2019.112563. Epub 2019 May 27.


Overeating of highly palatable (HP) foods in the ubiquitous HP food cue environment and under stress is associated with weight gain and contributes to the global obesity epidemic. However, subjective and biobehavioral processes that may increase HP overeating are not clear. Using a novel experimental approach, we examined HP food motivation and intake and neuroendocrine responses in the context of food cues, stress and a control neutral relaxing cue exposure in healthy individuals.

Methods: Twenty individuals (12 M; 8F; ages 18-45) with body mass index (BMI) in the lean (LN: N = 8; 3/8 female BMI: 18-24.9) or overweight/obese (OW: N = 12; 5/12 female; BMI: 25-37) range were enrolled in a controlled, hospital-based, 3-day laboratory experiment. On each day, subjects were exposed to a brief 5-min individualized guided imagery of stress, food cue or an active neutral-relaxing control cue script, followed by a food snack test (FST), with one imagery condition per day and order of imagery exposure randomized and counterbalanced across subjects. Subjective HP food craving and caloric intake, anxiety, cortisol and total ghrelin was assessed repeatedly during each test day.

Results: Significant condition and condition × group effects for food craving, anxiety and HP calorie intake were observed, with food cue relative to neutral condition increasing HP food craving and intake across all subjects (p < .001), but stress relative to neutral condition increased HP food craving and intake in the OW but not LN group (p < .01). Pre-snack increases in food craving after exposure to food cues and to stress predicted greater subsequent HP food intake (p's < 0.01). Furthermore, ghrelin increased in the food cue and stress conditions (p < .01), but stress-induced increases in ghrelin was associated with HP food intake only in the OW/OB condition (p < .01). Finally, cortisol increased during food cue exposure and increased cortisol responses were associated with greater HP food caving and with intake (p's < 0.05).

Conclusions: These findings, while preliminary, validate a laboratory model of HP food motivation and intake and identify specific subjective and neuroendocrine responses that may play a role in HP snacking with implications for weight gain and obesity risk. (342 words).

Keywords: Cortisol; Food craving; Food cues; Ghrelin; Highly palatable food intake; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Craving / physiology*
  • Eating / physiology
  • Eating / psychology*
  • Female
  • Ghrelin / blood
  • Ghrelin / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hydrocortisone / physiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Snacks / psychology*
  • Young Adult


  • Ghrelin
  • Hydrocortisone