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Passive Overeating

Research shows people “right size” portions of calorie-dense foods.

Small and large bag of chips to represent overeating

Perhaps humans aren’t passive overeaters after all. A watershed study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, challenges the common view that people are prone to mindlessly overeating high-energy foods.

Rather than artificially manipulating the calories in single foods, the research lead by scientists at the University of Bristol (in collaboration with U.S. National Institutes of Health) analyzed data from a trial using normal meals with different energy densities, such as a chicken salad sandwich with fig roll biscuits or oatmeal with blueberries and almonds.

The study involved 20 adults who lived in a hospital ward for 4 weeks where they were served a variety of meals.

The results demonstrated that there was a turning point with greater energy density where people start to respond to increases in calories by reducing the size of the meals they consume. This suggests a subtle sensitivity to the calorie content of the meals people were eating and a degree of nutritional intelligence. At a certain point, people manage to adjust the amount they consume of energy-dense meals.

This pattern also remained when participants lived freely in their homes, choosing their own meals. People ate smaller portions of energy-rich meals than meals that were calculated to be relatively energy-poor.

Perhaps we don’t all struggle with passively overeating calorie-rich foods, and the reason why they are associated with obesity is more nuanced than thought.

See also: Overeating Ultraprocessed Foods

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a James Beard Award–winning food journalist, dietitian and author of the cookbook Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sport + Adventure (VeloPress 2016). He has written for dozens of magazines, including Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Shape, Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness.

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