Implicit and explicit motivational responses to high- and low-calorie food in women with disordered eating

Int J Psychophysiol. 2021 Jan:159:37-46. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2020.11.012. Epub 2020 Nov 25.


Eating disorders and their symptoms are thought to be associated with altered motivational responding to food. Binge eating may relate to increased reward reactivity, restrictive eating may be associated with increased threat and/or decreased reward reactivity, and the combination of these symptoms within an individual may be linked to motivational conflict to food. Using both implicit (i.e., physiological) and explicit (i.e., self-reported) measures, we tested these hypotheses in 88 women with binge eating only, restrictive eating only, both binge eating and restrictive eating, or no eating pathology. Participants viewed and rated high-calorie food, low-calorie food, and emotional images while startle eye blink and postauricular reflexes were measured. Arousal and craving, but not valence, ratings were significantly greater for high- than low-calorie food. Startle blink reflexes during all food images were significantly lower than during neutral images, whereas only high-calorie foods related to greater postauricular reactivity than neutral images. Eating pathology group did not predict implicit and explicit motivational reactions to food. Exploratory dimensional analyses revealed that rating low-calorie foods as lower on craving predicted endorsement of restrictive eating, while rating low-calorie foods as lower on valence and arousal, and experiencing lower postauricular reactivity to high-calorie foods minus neutral images, predicted greater frequency of restrictive eating episodes. Decreased implicit and explicit appetitive motivation to high- and low-calorie food may relate to the presence and frequency of restrictive eating. Future longitudinal research should investigate whether decreased appetitive responding to food is a risk factor for, versus consequence of, restrictive eating.

Keywords: Binge eating; Food; Motivation; Postauricular reflex; Restrictive eating; Startle blink reflex.

MeSH terms

  • Bulimia*
  • Craving
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders*
  • Female
  • Food
  • Humans
  • Motivation