Humans limit the size of energy-dense meals they consume, according to new research, implying that individuals are smarter eaters than previously assumed.
The findings, headed by the University of Bristol, call into question the long-held belief that humans are unresponsive to the energy content of the foods they eat and, as a result, are prone to eating the same quantity of food (by weight) whether it is energy-rich or energy-poor.
The study, which was published today in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is particularly noteworthy since it contradicts a widely held belief among experts that humans are prone to overconsumption of high-energy meals.
This idea comes from studies in which the amount of energy in foods or meals was changed to make low-energy and high-energy versions. In these experiments, participants were not informed as to whether they were consuming a low- or high-energy version, and the results revealed that they tended to consume meals of the same weight, resulting in a higher calorie consumption with the high-energy version.
“For years we’ve believed that humans mindlessly overeat energy-rich meals. Remarkably, this study indicates a degree of nutritional intelligence whereby humans manage to adjust the amount they consume of high-energy density options ,” explained main author Annika Flynn.
Rather of changing the calories in single items purposefully, this study examined data from a trial involving common, everyday meals with varying energy densities, such as a chicken salad sandwich with fig roll biscuits or porridge with blueberries and almonds. The study recruited 20 healthy adults who spent four weeks in a hospital ward, where they were fed a variety of meals.
The calories, grams, and energy density (calories per gram) for each meal were determined by a worldwide team of researchers, which included prominent specialists in food and metabolism from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States. The findings showed that in energy-poor meals, meal calorie consumption rose with energy density, as previously shown with experimentally modified foods. Surprisingly, with higher energy density, people begin to respond to increased calorie intake by reducing the quantity of their meals. This shows that people have an undiagnosed sensitivity to the energy level of the meals they eat.
Since this result came from a small, highly controlled trial, the researchers wanted to see if the same pattern held true when the participants lived on their own and picked their own meals. Researchers used data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey to find that meal calorie consumption increased with energy density in low-energy meals and then declined in high-energy meals. Importantly, participants would have had to have smaller meals by weight of the more energy-dense meals for this pattern to emerge.
“For instance, people ate smaller portions of a creamy cheese pasta dish, which is an energy-rich meal, than a salad with lots of different vegetables which is relatively energy-poor,” Annika explained.
This research gives us new information about how people eat, especially about how they seem to be slightly sensitive to the number of calories in meals that are high in energy.
“This research gives added weight to the idea humans aren’t passive overeaters after all, but show the discerning ability to moderate how much of an energy-rich meal they consume,” added co-author Jeff Brunstrom, Professor of Experimental Psychology.
“This work is particularly exciting as it reveals a hidden complexity to how humans interact with modern energy-rich foods, something we’ve been referring to as ‘nutritional intelligence’. What this tells us is we don’t seem to passively overconsume these foods and so the reason why they are associated with obesity is more nuanced than previously thought. For now, at least this offers a new perspective on a longstanding issue and it opens the door to a range of important new questions and avenues for future research.”
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