Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science, 2013, 3, 1-6 Published Online February 2013 (
The Effect of Food Images on Mood and Arousal Depends
on Dietary Histories and the Fat and Sugar Content
of Foods Depicted
Gregory J. Privitera*, Danielle E. Antonelli, Heather E. Creary
Department of Psychology, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, USA
Email: *
Received November 15, 2012; revised November 23, 2012; accepted February 16, 2013
Background: While brain imaging studies show that reward regions in the human brain that regulate reward-guided
behavior and integrate sensory modalities of smell, taste, and texture respond preferentially to high calorie foods, few
studies account for dietary histories or account for recent behavioral evidence showing preferential responding for fruits
(a low calorie food that tastes sweet). To address these concerns, the present study tested the hypothesis that images of
high/low fat and sugar foods, even sugary foods that are low calorie (i.e., fruits), will enhance emotional responsiveness
and that these changes may be related to dietary histories with fat and sugar intake. Method: Participants were shown 4
sets of 15 food images with each food image automatically timed every 9 s to transition to a new food image; partici-
pant pre-post mood and arousal was measured. The 4 sets of food images were high fat-high sugar (HFHS; desserts),
high fat-low sugar (HFLS; fried foods), low fat-high sugar (LFHS; fruits), or low fat-low sugar (LFLS; vegetables)
foods. To account for dietary histories, participants also completed estimated daily intake scales (EDIS) for sugar and
fat. Results: Mood and arousal significantly increased in all groups, except Group LFLS, and even in a group that was
low calorie but shown foods that taste sweet, i.e., Group LFHS. Interestingly, changes in arousal, but not mood, were
dependent on participant histories with sugar and fat intake. Conclusion: Changes in emotional responsiveness to food
images were nutrient-specific, which can be a more detailed level of analysis for assessing responsiveness to food im-
ages. Also, participant histories with sugar and fat should be taken into account as these histories can explain the
changes in arousal observed here.
Keywords: Fat; Sugar; Mood; Arousal; Dietary History
1. Introduction
Emotional regulation and eating behavior are indubitably
related [1-3], with many people allowing their emotions
to regulate food intake in order to maintain and promote
emotional well-being [4,5]. Emotional changes can often
lead to dietary changes, and even modifications of food
likes and dislikes [6]. Consumption of comfort foods, of-
ten high in fat and sugar, can lead to improved emotional
states [7], and yet intake of these foods in response to
emotions has been linked to the rising rates in obesity [8,9].
While much of the focus on the link between emotional
responsiveness and eating has been on physiological fac-
tors, more recent advances now focus on understanding
appetitive and cognitive factors, often linked to cortical
brain activity [10,11] that may also significantly contrib-
ute to the relationship between emotion and foodstuffs.
Brain imaging studies show clear evidence that re-
ward-related areas in the human brain respond preferen-
tially to the sight of high calorie vs. low calorie foods [10,
12]. A consistent pattern across studies shows that brain
regions in the temporo-insulo-opercular and orbitofrontal
areas—areas involved in regulating reward-guided be-
havior and integrating sensory modalities of smell, taste,
and texture [13]—are significantly more active during the
visual presentation of high calorie vs low calorie foods
[10,12,14,15]. Men show similar neuronal activation le-
vels regardless of hunger, whereas women show stronger
brain reward activation patterns when hungry, but not
when sated [12,16]. Interestingly, visual cortical sensory
processing is related to the sight of high-calorie, but not
low-calorie foods [17]. Overall, these findings suggest
that without ever consuming food, men and women have
positive, motivational experiences at the mere sight of
food, and show greater sensory (visual) processing of
high calorie vs low calorie foods.
Behavioral data show patterns similar to that from
neuroimaging studies. Women, particularly those who
*Corresponding author.
opyright © 2013 SciRes. JBBS
are dieting, can be over-responsive to images of “forbid-
den” foods, such as chocolates and other high fat, high
sugar appetizing foods [18,19]; visual images of sweet
foods can also enhance ratings of deliciousness of those
foods [20]. Studies on the visibility and proximity of
foods show that participants eat more of candies (M&Ms)
if they are visible, even when these candies are not pro-
ximate, i.e., 2 m from the participant [21,22]. Similar
effects of visibility are observed with sweet-tasting fruits
(apples), but not bitter-tasting vegetables (carrots) [23].
Privitera et al. [23] suggest that the effect of visibility on
fruit, but not vegetable intake, may be specifically related
to perceived tastes, with foods perceived as tasting swee-
ter reported as more visually appealing, wanted, or moti-
vationally salient than foods perceived as tasting less
sweet, regardless of the actual number of calories.
In the present study, we extended findings from neuro-
biological and behavioral studies by testing the hypothe-
sis that nutrient-specific fat and sugar contents of food
will influence emotional responsiveness and that these
changes may be related to dietary histories with fat and
sugar intake. While many studies have looked at the ef-
fects of high vs. low calorie foods, these manipulations
have not looked at nutrient-specific levels of fat (high,
low) and sugar (high low), and have not controlled for
dietary histories, as is manipulated and controlled in the
present study. Also, because a growing body of research
shows that images of high calorie foods increases activity
of brain reward regions, we tested the prediction that we
should also observe a corresponding enhanced emotional
response to only the sight of these foods, as is often ob-
served when these foods are consumed [9].
2. Method
2.1. Participants
A total sample of 95 participants (40 men, 55 women)
was recruited through university classroom visits and
sign-up sheets. Participant characteristics were (M ± SD)
age (20.2 ± 1.2 years), weight (169.9 ± 21.8 pounds),
height (68.2 ± 2.5 inches), and BMI (25.9 ± 3.1 kg/m2).
In an initial screening phase, participants reported being
in general good health with no physical or doctor diag-
nosed food allergies, medical conditions including preg-
nancy, or dietary restrictions. Participants were told dur-
ing this initial screening not to eat within two hours of
the study because hunger states can influence respon-
siveness to food images [12,16]. Only participants who
did not eat within two hours of the study were included
in data analyses.
2.2. Measures and Food Pictures
Affect Grid (1989). Participants reported changes in mood
and arousal using the Affect Grid [24], which is a valid
and reliable self-report, single-item scale that assesses
two dimensions of affect states: mood (positive feelings
vs. negative feelings) and arousal (excitement vs sleepi-
ness or calmness). The scale is completed at two times
and the difference in ratings from Time 1 to Time 2 is re-
corded. Negative difference scores indicate a decrease in
mood/arousal; positive scores indicate an increase in
EDIS-S. The estimated daily intake scale for sugar
(EDIS-S [25]) is a valid and reliable 11-item scale to es-
timate daily intake of sugar in one’s diet. Participants in-
dicate their level of agreement to each item from 1 (com-
pletely disagree) to 7 (completely agree). Total scores
range from 11 to 77, with higher scores indicating greater
daily intake of sugar.
EDIS-F. The estimated daily intake scale for fat (EDIS-
F [26]) is a valid and reliable 13-item scale to estimate
daily intake of fat in one’s diet. Participants indicate their
level of agreement to each item from 1 (completely dis-
agree) to 7 (completely agree). Total scores range from
13 to 91, with higher scores indicating greater daily in-
take of fat.
Food pictures. Participants were shown four sets of
food image slideshows using Microsoft PowerPoint® soft-
ware with each slide image depicting a single food that
was automatically timed every 9 s to transition to a new
slide. A sample set of food pictures is given in Figure 1.
Each slideshow presentation had 15 food pictures for a
total of 135 s per slideshow. The four sets of food pic-
tures were foods that were high fat-high sugar (HFHS),
high fat-low sugar (HFLS), low fat-high sugar (LFHS),
or low fat-low sugar (LFLS). HFHS food images were
desserts, such as cakes, ice creams, and pies; HFLS foods
were fried foods, such as chicken wings, pizzas, and fries;
LFHS foods were fruits, such as apples, grapes, and or-
anges; LFLS foods were vegetables, such as carrots, peas,
and potatoes.
All food images were displayed on a plain background
and formatted to be the same size with no other identify-
ing features on the slide, other than the food itself. All
Figure 1. A sample of two food pictures depicted in each of
four sets of slideshows for foods that varied in sugar and fat
content. A total of 15 food pictures were presented in color
in each food category.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JBBS
food images were chosen based on a separate pilot sam-
ple of 55 participants who rated the food images as ma-
tching in complexity, valence and arousal, same as crite-
ria used in prior food image studies [12].
2.3. General Procedures
Participants were observed between 3:00 PM and 4:00
PM in a classroom setting in small groups of five to ten
at a time. Participants were given and signed an informed
consent and instructed to orient toward the front of the
room at all times and not to speak to one another during
the study. All participants followed these instructions. As
an exercise to prime a neutral emotional state, partici-
pants were then asked to close their eyes and imagine a
place or situation that was neither positive nor negative.
After 10 s participants were asked to open their eyes and
to rate their current level of mood and arousal on the af-
fect grid. Participants were again told to orient their at-
tention toward the screen in front of them and the first of
four sets of food picture PowerPoint® slideshows were
displayed. After the slideshow ended participants were
asked to rate their post level of mood and arousal on the
affect grid. After 20 s to complete the affect grid, the
same procedures were repeated starting with the exercise
to prime a neutral emotional state until all four sets of
slideshows were presented and participant’s had rated
their pre-post measures on the affect grid for each slide-
show. Once all measures were recorded, participants
were debriefed, thanked for their time, and dismissed.
A Latin square procedure was used to counterbalance
the order of food picture displays such that the orders of
slideshows were: HFHS- > HFLS- > LFHS- > LFLS (n =
23), HFLS- > LFHS- > LFLS- > HFHS (n = 24), LFHS-
> LFLS- > HFHS- > HFLS (n = 24), LFLS- > HFHS- >
HFLS- > LFHS (n = 24). The order of slideshows were
counterbalanced such that each slideshow occurred equally
often in each ordered position and each slideshow pre-
ceded and followed the other slideshow one time.
2.4. Statistical Analysis
An analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was computed
with Fat (high, low), and Sugar (high, low) as the within
subjects factors, and EDIS-F and EDIS-S scores included
as covariates. The dependent variables were mood and
arousal ratings. For significant effects, 95% confidence
intervals (CIs) were drawn. The null hypothesis under
evaluation for each group was that the difference score of
the population was zero. A significant change in mood
and arousal was identified if the CI did not envelop zero.
3. Results
No significant differences between groups were evident
for pretest scores of mood and arousal (p > 0.44 for both
measures in each group); hence, initial ratings on these
measures were statistically similar prior to the slideshows.
Effects of gender and BMI were also not significant be-
tween groups (p > 0.38 for both measures) and so both
factors were excluded from further analyses.
3.1. Mood Ratings
For mood ratings, a significant Fat × Sugar interaction
was evident, F(1,92) = 7.19, p < 0.01 (R2 = 0.07). As
shown in Figure 2, mood significantly increased after
viewing high fat, high sugar foods (95% CI 0.79, 1.38),
high sugar, low fat foods (95% CI 1.05, 1.62), high fat,
low sugar foods (95% CI 0.05, 0.83), but not after view-
ing low fat, low sugar foods (95% CI 0.26, 0.34). A
main effect of Fat was significant, F(1,92) = 13.69, p <
0.001 (R2 = 0.13), with larger increases in high fat vs.
low fat groups. A main effect of Sugar was significant,
F(1,92) = 6.09, p = 0.015 (R2 = 0.06), with larger in-
creases in mood in the high sugar vs low sugar groups.
All analyses reported were significant with EDIS-F and
EDIS-S scores included as covariates.
3.2. Arousal Ratings
For arousal ratings, no significant effects were evident
with EDIS-F and EDIS-S scores included as covariates;
this was also true when each covariate was included se-
parately. Using an analysis of variance (ANOVA), ex-
cluding EDIS-F and EDIS-S scores as covariates, a sig-
nificant Fat × Sugar interaction, F(1,94) = 21.68, p <
0.001 (R2 = 0.19), main effect of Fat, F(1,94) = 12.10, p
= 0.001 (R2 = 0.11), and main effect of Sugar, F(1,94) =
5.57, p = 0.02 (R2 = 0.06), were all evident. As shown in
Figure 3, arousal significantly increased after viewing
high fat, high sugar foods (95% CI 0.91, 1.50), high fat,
low sugar foods (95% CI 1.13, 1.84), high sugar, low fat
foods (95% CI 0.90, 1.53), but not after viewing low fat,
low sugar foods (95% CI 0.02, 0.61). Because all effects
Pre-Post Mood Ratings
High Sugar
Low Sugar
Low Fat
High FatGroups
Figure 2. Mean difference in mood ratings following slide-
shows for foods that vary in sugar and fat content. Results
show significant changes in mood in all groups, except
Group LFLS. Error bars indicate SEM .
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JBBS
High Sugar
Low Sugar
-0.2 High Fat Low Fat
Pre-Post Arousal Ratings
Figure 3. Mean difference in arousal ratings following
slideshows for foods that vary in sugar and fat content. Re-
sults show significant changes in arousal in all groups, ex-
cept Group LFLS, and these changes can be accounted for
by participant histories with sugar and fat content. Error
bars indicate SEM.
were not significant when EDIS-F and EDIS-S scores
were included as covariates, it appears likely that the
reported significant changes in arousal can be fully ex-
plained by the dietary histories of sugar and fat intake
among participants.
4. Discussion
The hypothesis that nutrient-specific manipulations of
high/low fat and sugar food images will influence emo-
tional responsiveness and that these changes may be re-
lated to dietary histories with fat and sugar intake was
tested. Results show that the presentation of high fat and
high sugar foods significantly enhanced mood, even for
high sugar foods (i.e., fruits) that were low calorie. Also,
the observed increase in mood in response to high fat,
high sugar food images was independent of a partici-
pant’s history with sugar and fat intake.
Because motivational salience is directly related to the
arousal of a stimulus or food cue [27,28], it was hypothe-
sized that arousal may be significantly enhanced follow-
ing the presentation of more desirable foods, i.e., foods
that induced greater motivational salience or wanting [23,
29]. While significant changes in arousal were observed
following the presentation of high fat and high sugar
foods, these changes were fully accounted for by a par-
ticipant’s dietary history with sugar and fat intake. The
finding that changes in arousal, but not mood, were de-
pendent on a participant’s history with sugar and fat in-
take may reflect recent data showing that the emotion-
and arousal-inducing properties of a cue or food cue are
processed in distinct areas of the brain, likely in the or-
bitofrontal cortex [28,30].
Another novel outcome is the finding that changes in
mood and arousal were statistical similar in all groups,
except Group LFLS (vegetables) showed no significant
change in mood or arousal. The increase in mood and
arousal observed in Groups HFHS (desserts) and HFLS
(fried foods) were fully predicted by neuroimaging stud-
ies showing greater activation of brain reward regions for
high vs. low calorie foods [10,12,14-15]. However, simi-
lar increases in mood and arousal were observed in
Group LFHS (fruits), which was a low calorie group of
foods that taste sweet. In this study, then, the pattern of
results suggests that categories of foods as being low vs.
high calorie may be too broad in that behavioral evidence
for increases in intakes [23] and enhancement of mood
and arousal (shown here) is observed for low calorie
foods that taste sweet—likely because sweet tastes stimu-
late brain reward regions [29,31], enhance food intake
[32], and increase reported liking/pleasantness of foods
even when the caloric content is negligible [5,25,33].
5. Conclusion
In all, these data extend prior neuroimaging and behav-
ioral data by showing that solely viewing images of high
fat, high sugar foods will enhance mood and arousal,
even for foods that taste sweet but are low calorie, with
changes in arousal being dependent on a participant’s
history with sugar and fat intake. Only when vegetables
(i.e., LFLS) were depicted were changes in mood and
arousal not observed. All participants were hungry at the
time of the study to control for hunger states. While some
studies show that women, but not men, are less respon-
sive to food pictures when sated [12,16], the present study
does show that when hungry, men and women have
similar increases in mood and arousal following pictures
with high sugar or high fat, but not LFLS foods. There-
fore, changes in emotional responsiveness to food images
are nutrient-specific, and an increase in mood, but not
arousal, occurs independent of participant dietary histo-
6. Acknowledgements
This research was partly supported by an internally fun-
ded Faculty Research Grant awarded to the first author.
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