Background: In the current obesogenic environment we often eat while electronic devices, such as smart phones, computers, or the television, distract us. Such "distracted eating" is associated with increased food intake and overweight. However, the underlying neurocognitive mechanisms of this phenomenon are unknown.
Objective: Our aim was to elucidate these mechanisms by investigating whether distraction attenuates processing in the primary and secondary taste cortices, located in the insula and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), respectively.
Methods: Forty-one healthy, normal-weight participants received fixed amounts of higher- and lower-sweetness isocaloric chocolate milk while performing a high- or low-distracting detection task during fMRI in 2 test sessions. Subsequently, we measured ad libitum food intake.
Results: As expected, a primary taste cortex region in the right insula responded more to the sweeter drink (P < 0.001, uncorrected). Distraction did not affect this insular sweetness response across the group, but did weaken sweetness-related connectivity of this region to a secondary taste region in the right OFC (P-family-wise error, cluster, small-volume corrected = 0.020). Moreover, individual differences in distraction-related attenuation of taste activation in the insula predicted increased subsequent ad libitum food intake after distraction (r = 0.36).
Conclusions: These results reveal a mechanism explaining how distraction during consumption attenuates neural taste processing. Moreover, our study shows that such distraction-induced decreases in neural taste processing contribute to individual differences in the susceptibility for overeating. Thus, being mindful about the taste of food during consumption could perhaps be part of successful prevention and treatment of overweight and obesity, which should be further tested in these target groups. This study was preregistered at the Open Science Framework as https://bit.ly/31RtDHZ.
Keywords: attention; consumption; distraction; fMRI; insula; orbitofrontal cortex; taste.
Copyright © The Author(s) 2020.