There's a scientific reason you want to overindulge on foods like chips, ice cream, and bacon
- Foods like chips, cake, crackers, and bacon can boost appetite by combining salt, fat, and sugar.
- Called hyper-palatable foods, they can drive us to overeat, potentially causing weight gain.
If you're trying to cut calories and lose weight, watch out for certain foods that trigger the brain's desire to eat more, according to new research.
Hyper-palatable foods artificially prompt cravings (and potentially even addiction) by stimulating the appetite with combinations of fat, sugar, and salt. These combinations are unique because they're rarely found in naturally-occurring whole foods like produce or grains, and most often show up in ultra-processed foods like potato chips, crackers, cake, ice cream, and bacon that compel us to keep eating.
They may be linked to weight and fat gain, according to researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and University of Kansas.
The research team looked at data from 2,700 meals eaten by 35 adult participants in previous NIH food studies.
They found that the more hyper-palatable foods were included in a meal, the more calories participants tended to eat overall, according to the research brief, published January 30 in Nature Food.
The link between hyper-palatable foods and higher calorie intake was true whether the rest of the diet was low-fat or low-carb, and regardless of how much processed food they ate overall, suggesting no particular eating style is exempt.
Previous NIH research has shown ultra-processed food can also drive overeating — a study from one of the same researchers found that people ate an average of 500 more calories a day on an ultra-processed diet, compared to a diet of whole foods.
While the allure of hyper-palatable foods could help explain why they're easy to overeat, researchers still don't fully understand the phenomenon. Another theory, based on other previous evidence, is that a lack of protein and fiber in processed foods can contribute to increased appetite.
But the researchers in the most recent study were surprised to find that protein, which typically increases fullness after meals, didn't seem to dampen the effect of hyper-palatable foods in a meal, and in fact, seemed to make people eat even more. That's contrary to the common weight loss advice to add more protein, and a trend of high-protein processed foods advertised as healthier alternatives.
Other factors that influenced how much participants ate were eating speed and caloric density: people tended to eat more if they ate quickly, and also if they ate foods with a high ratio of calories-per-portion, like cheese, meats, or pastries.
More research to understand hyper-palatable foods, and how they influence our appetites, could help people make more informed decisions about what (and how much) to eat when trying to stay healthy, or if they're watching their weight, according to Dr. Tera Fazzino, lead author of the study and psychology professor at the University of Kansas.
"We hope to get the information about hyper-palatable foods out there for individuals to consider as they make dietary choices, and we hope that scientists continue to examine hyper-palatable characteristics as a potential factor influencing energy intake," Fazzino said in a press release.
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