Food and Behaviour Research

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Hippocampal-dependent appetitive control is impaired by experimental exposure to a Western-style diet

Stevenson RJ, Francis HM, Attuquayefio T, Gupta D, Yeomans MR, Oaten MJ, Davidson T (2020) Royal Society Open Science 19;7(2) 191338. doi: 10.1098/rsos.191338. eCollection 2020 Feb. 

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Animals fed a Western-style diet (WS-diet) demonstrate rapid impairments in hippocampal function and poorer appetitive control. We examined if this also occurs in humans.

One-hundred and ten healthy lean adults were randomized to either a one-week WS-diet intervention or a habitual-diet control group. Measures of hippocampal-dependent learning and memory (HDLM) and of appetitive control were obtained pre- and post-intervention. HDLM was retested at three-week follow-up.

Relative to controls, HDLM performance declined in the WS-diet group (
d = 0.43), but was not different at follow-up. Appetitive control also declined in the WS-diet group (d = 0.47) and this was strongly correlated with HDLM decline (d = 1.01).

These findings demonstrate that a WS-diet can rapidly impair appetitive control in humans—an effect that could promote overeating in consumers of a WS-diet.

The study also suggests a functional role for the hippocampus in appetitive control and provides new evidence for the adverse neurocognitive effects of a WS-diet.


This human randomised controlled trial assessed the effects in healthy young adults of just one week of eating a modern western-style or 'junk food' diet - i.e one rich in ultra-processed foods, and high in both sugar and fat as well as artificial additives - compared with a healthy diet of mainly whole or minimally processed foods.

Relative to the control diet, consuming the western-type diet even for this short time period led to
  • poorer appetite control (assessed by self-rated cravings for junk foods even when already feeling full), and
  • a decline in learning and memory on tests of hippocampal functioning
These findings are consistent with what has already been well-documented in animal studies - namely that consuming a high-sugar, high-fat western-type diet:
  • impairs the ability to prevent overeating (and therefore causes weight gain and associated metabolic problems), and
  • also damages the hippocampus (a brain structure critical for working memory and spatial memory, among many other functions).
For an accessible summary of this research, see the associated news item and FAB comment:

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