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Why it can be hard to stop eating even when you're full: Some foods may be designed that way

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Why it can be hard to stop eating even when you're full: Some foods may be designed that way
Bet you can’t eat just one. Credit: tlindsayg/Shutterstock

All foods are not created equal. Most are palatable, or tasty to eat, which is helpful because we need to eat to survive. For example, a fresh apple is palatable to most people and provides vital nutrients and calories.

But certain foods, such as pizza, potato chips and chocolate chip cookies, are almost irresistible. They’re always in demand at parties, and they’re easy to keep eating, even when we are full.

In these foods, a synergy between key ingredients can create an artificially enhanced palatability experience that is greater than any key ingredient would produce alone. Researchers call this hyperpalatability. Eaters call it delicious.

Initial studies suggest that foods with two or more key ingredients linked to palatability—specifically, sugar, salt, fat or carbohydrates—can activate brain-reward neurocircuits similarly to drugs like cocaine or opioids. They may also be able to bypass mechanisms in our bodies that make us feel full and tell us to stop eating.

Our research focuses on rewarding foods, addictive behaviors and obesity. We recently published a study with nutritional scientist Debra Sullivan that identifies three clusters of key ingredients that can make foods hyperpalatable. Using those definitions, we estimated that nearly two-thirds of foods widely consumed in the U.S. fall into at least one of those three groups.

Cracking the codes

Foods that are highly rewarding, easily accessible and cheap are everywhere in our society. Unsurprisingly, eating them has been associated with obesity.

Documentaries in the last 15-20 years have reported that food companies have developed formulas to make palatable foods so enticing. However, manufacturers typically guard their recipes as trade secrets, so academic scientists can’t study them.