Humans can limit food based on calories

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New research challenges the belief that humans cannot moderate foods based on their calorie content. Evan Dalen/Stocksy
  • It was thought that humans were unaware of the energy content of the foods they ate and therefore tended to eat the same amount of food by weight regardless of its energy density.
  • However, a new study reveals that humans may have more nutritional intelligence than previously thought.
  • Research shows that in a real environment, people have reached a point where they limit the food they eat according to the calories it contains.

In everyday life, we are surrounded by high-fat, high-energy, great-tasting foods that allow people to easily exceed their energy expenditure, contributing to weight gain and obesity.

Until now, it was generally accepted that people had a will overeating energy- or calorie-rich foods, consuming them in the same way as energy- or calorie-poor foods.

A new study by researchers at the University of Bristol suggests that humans unconsciously limit the size of their meals based on the calorie content of the food.

According to the researchers, this stems from inherent nutritional wisdom or nutritional intelligence, or people’s ability to react to the nutritional content of the foods they eat or plan to eat.

The study was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Talk to Medical News Today, Dr. Jeff Brunstrom, a professor of experimental psychology and one of the study’s authors, explained that the traditional way of looking at eating behavior is to “take the food and then manipulate the food.” He said researchers then typically add extra calories or protein to the food and study the participant’s response to see if there is a change.

In this study, the researchers studied participants’ responses to meals eaten in a controlled environment. They monitored and recorded the meals of 20 healthy adults who lived in a metabolic hospital ward for 4 weeks.

The researchers also included ‘free’ participants in the UK National Food and Nutrition Survey in their study. They recorded all food and beverages consumed by the participants via a diet diary for 7 days.

In total, the researchers analyzed 32,162 meals after excluding snacks (4 kcal/g). The researchers recorded the calorie content, grams and energy density (kcal/g) of all meals.

The researchers used a two-component model of meal size. They used volume as the primary cue for energy-poor foods and calorie content as the primary cue for more energy-dense foods.

Talk to DTMlead author of the study Annika Flynna doctoral researcher in nutrition and behavior described a “tipping point” where “as meals became more energy dense, the caloric content of those meals actually began to decrease”.

According to Flynn, this means that “people actually adjusted the amount of food they put on their plate in response to the energy density of the meal they were about to consume”, suggesting that people are sensitive to the content of meals they ate.

Marc Schatzkerauthor of “The Dorito Effectand who did not participate in the study, said DTM:

“The implications for our understanding of appetite and nutrition are far-reaching. […] we may fundamentally misunderstand the nature of obesity. Instead of mindlessly consuming calories, perhaps there is an aspect of the modern food environment that forces otherwise nutritionally intelligent individuals to consume too much food.

“[This study] challenges a long-held and pervasive assumption that humans possess some sort of primitive, disordered craving for calories. Rather, we seem to have an intrinsic ability to measure the caloric density of foods as we eat them and subconsciously assess how much we should therefore be eating.
—Mark Schatzker

When asked if she would expect to see the same behavior in overweight people, Flynn said their article didn’t take that scope into account.

However, Flynn said they account for individual variation using mean-centered analysis for “[..] try to take into account that a taller person may eat a larger meal than a shorter person.

The study is still in its early stages. The next steps, according to Flynn, are to study individual variation, to see which groups of people and individuals have different degrees of nutritional sensitivity.

The research adds to our understanding of nutritional intelligence and how it changes; however, according to Dr. Brunstrom, “we’re only scratching the surface here.”

He said it might help to refocus the narrative on “a more complex interaction” humans have when it comes to calorie differentiation.

“[We need to think about] where does this ability to discriminate calories come from – is it something innate, is it something that is learned on a personal level, or is it something that is part of a collective form of learning that occurs within and across generations, [forming] part of our collective kitchen or our collective food practice? »
-Dr. Jeff Brunstrom

“All of these questions are intriguing and we will probably want to explore them in different ways,” Dr. Brunstrom added.

The take-home message from this study is that at some level, humans may be able to self-regulate their calorie intake and naturally adjust meal sizes to reduce the negative effects of overeating.

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