Exercise Training Reduces Reward for High-Fat Food in Adults With Overweight/Obesity

Kristine Beaulieu; Mark Hopkins; Catherine Gibbons; Pauline Oustric; Phillipa Caudwell; John Blundell; Grahamfinlayson


Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020;52(4):900-908. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Purpose: There is increasing evidence that exercise training may facilitate weight management via improvements in homeostatic appetite control, but little is known about how exercise training affects food reward and susceptibility to overeating.

Methods: This study examined changes in food reward and eating behavior traits after a supervised 12-wk exercise intervention (10.5 MJ·wk−1) in inactive individuals with overweight/obesity (exercisers; n = 46, 16 men/30 women; mean (SD) body mass index, 30.6 (3.8) kg·m−2; and mean (SD) age, 43.2 (7.5) yr) compared with nonexercising controls (n = 15; 6 men/9 women; mean (SD) body mass index, 31.4 (3.7) kg·m−2; and mean (SD) age, 41.4 (10.7) yr). Liking and wanting scores for high-fat relative to low-fat foods were assessed with the Leeds Food Preference Questionnaire before and after consumption of an isoenergetic high-fat or high-carbohydrate lunch. Eating behavior traits were assessed using the Three-Factor Eating Questionnaire and Binge Eating Scale.

Results: A week–group interaction indicated that wanting scores decreased from baseline to postintervention in exercisers only (M ΔPre–Post = −4.1, P = 0.03, η2 p = 0.09, 95% confidence interval [CI], −7.8 to −0.4), but there was no exercise effect on liking. There was also a week–group interaction for binge eating, which decreased in exercisers only (M ΔPre–Post = −1.5, P = 0.01, η2 p = 0.11; 95% CI, −2.7 to −0.4). A small reduction in disinhibition was also apparent in exercisers (M ΔPre–Post = −0.7, P = 0.02, η2 p = 0.10; 95% CI, −1.3 to −0.1).

Conclusions: This study showed that 12 wk of exercise training reduced wanting scores for high-fat foods and trait markers of overeating in individuals with overweight/obesity compared with nonexercising controls. Further research is needed to elucidate the mechanisms behind these exercise-induced changes in food reward.


Physical activity is widely recommended as a strategy for weight management, and exercise interventions improve body composition in both men and women.[1] In addition to potential effects on body weight via increased energy expenditure, it is becoming apparent that habitual physical activity and exercise training improve markers of appetite control, such as increased satiety response to food and gastric emptying.[2,3] However, variability in the interindividual weight loss response to exercise interventions has been reported.[4] This variability suggests that some individuals may compensate for an increase in physical activity (and energy expenditure) through changes in meal size, frequency, or food choice, attenuating or even reversing the effect of exercise on weight loss.

Liking and wanting components of food reward may be heightened for palatable food in individuals with overweight and obesity compared with individuals who are lean.[5] Food reward is also potentially influenced by physical activity, but evidence has been inconsistent, and as highlighted by a recent systematic review on weight management interventions,[6] findings to date offer limited evidence for the effect of exercise interventions on food reward. We have shown that an acute postexercise increase (both at baseline and postintervention) in food liking and wanting (particularly of high-fat foods), was present in those with a less-than-expected reduction in body weight during a 12-wk exercise intervention.[7] No overall changes in food reward in individuals with obesity were found after 12 wk of moderate continuous or high-intensity interval training;[8] however, we have previously reported a trend for a decrease in implicit wanting measured in the hungry state in response to 12 wk of structured exercise training.[9] How meal consumption or macronutrient composition influences these responses has yet to be explored.

In terms of eating behavior traits, studies have shown that with exercise-induced weight loss, greater changes in restraint were associated with greater weight loss.[10] Exercise training has also been shown to decrease disinhibition in individuals with overweight and obesity.[10] A recent systematic review suggested that physical activity may reduce binge eating through potential effects of physical activity on the reward system as they may share similar brain pathways.[11] Other proposed mechanisms include changes in negative affect, homeostatic appetite control, and/or body composition.[11] Few studies have assessed the effect of exercise training on food reward and eating behaviors together. One study found reductions in the neuronal responses to visual food cues using functional magnetic resonance imaging but no changes in restraint or disinhibition after a 6-month exercise intervention.[12] Whether changes in eating behaviors are associated with changes in food reward in response to exercise remains to be elucidated.

Overeating traits and food reward states interact with the fat content of food with the potential to enhance or undermine appetite control.[13] Disinhibition and binge eating have both been linked to greater intake and preference for high-fat or high-fat/sweet foods.[14] Indeed, we have previously shown that food reward was reduced after consumption of a fixed-energy low-fat meal but not after an energy-matched high-fat meal.[15] Whether exercise training interacts with the fat content of the diet has gained interest in recent years and has relevance for weight management.[2]

Therefore, the main objective of this study was to investigate the effect of a supervised 12-wk exercise intervention on food reward and eating behavior traits in inactive individuals with overweight and obesity compared with nonexercising controls. This was examined during exposure to high-fat (HFAT) and high-carbohydrate (HCHO) feeding conditions. A secondary aim was to examine relationships among changes in eating behavior traits, food reward, and body composition.