Targeting Food Cues for Weight Management

As we explained yesterday, there’s quite a body of research on the food cues that surround us and keep prodding us to eat. Food marketing embeds itself deeply in our daily lives. We suspect it explains a lot about our obesogenic food environment. Yet changing that environment has proven to be quite a challenge. So we all have to figure out ways to cope. New research last week in JAMA Network Open suggests that targeting food cues might turn out to be a useful tool for weight management. In their research, Kerri Boutelle and colleagues found that it might be especially useful for individuals who are more vulnerable to the effects of food cues.

A Randomized Controlled Trial

Boutelle et al, Figure 2This RCT split 1,488 persons with a BMI between 25 and 45 into four groups. One group received conventional behavioral therapy for weight loss – a lower calorie diet and help with behavior change to support weight loss.

Then another group received help with their managing their response to food cues. This included psychological help with food cues in the environment and the response of that each person has to those cues. It was all about skills for recognizing and coping with those food cues. A third group got both the behavioral therapy for weight loss and the help with food cues. Finally, a comparison group received only general information on a healthy diet and stress reduction, along with social support. No advice on weight loss.

All four groups received 12 months of active treatment and then follow-up for another 12 months. At the end of two years, the comparison group had, on average, gained a little weight. The groups that received the weight loss therapy, with or without the help with cues, lost the most weight in the first six months and then regained some of it by the end of the 24-month study.

The group that received only help with food cues lost weight in the first six months, but not as much as the two weight-loss groups. But because they had less weight regain, they wound up with the similar outcomes at the end of 24 months.

Better Help for Some Individuals?

The tantalizing part of this study comes from an exploratory analysis. It found that people with stronger reactions to food cues seemed to benefit more from the food cue intervention. They had more sustained weight loss. This might mean, say Boutelle et al, that such help with food cues could be an effective strategy tailoring weight management.

Note that we say might. That’s because this finding comes from an analysis after the fact, so it doesn’t have the strength of the primary analysis of the RCT.

Nonetheless, it’s noteworthy that targeting food cues might be a very useful strategy for weight management – especially for people who are sensitive to them. As with everything in obesity care, one size does not fit all.

Click here for the study by Boutelle et al and here for further perspective on the food cues that are fueling growth in obesity prevalence.

The Four Elements – Earth, painting by Joachim Beuckelaer / Wikimedia Commons

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May 23, 2022