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Variety is the Spice of…Obesity

Jeremy Hendon | November 6
Variety is the Spice of…Obesity

Variety is always touted as an excellent thing, whether we’re talking about food or anything else.

But when it comes to food, there’s a mounting body of scientific literature that points to variety (in certain contexts) being a big problem. In particular, there is a phenomenon in every human known as sensory-specific satiety. This means that we get full faster when eating the same food, rather than a combination of different foods.

This 2009 study examined this very phenomenon:

Variety enhances food intake in humans: Role of sensory-specific satiety

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Why We Overeat

The reasons we overeat are numerous and varied. But obesity researchers almost universally agree on one of the biggest reasons: food reward.

The (oversimplified) idea behind food reward is that certain foods cause us to crave them. This is different than a food simply tasting good. For instance, I think pork belly is delicious. But once I’ve had a reasonably-sized meal, I have no desire to eat more pork belly. And I never go to bed craving pork belly.

On the other hand, a chocolate chip cookie sounds good to me just about any time. It doesn’t matter if I’ve just had a huge meal – a chocolate chip cookie will still be tempting.

The reason this occur is generally due to a specific combination of fat, sugar, and salt that our bodies have a hard time resisting. This combination never naturally occurs. It’s only something we create in modern foods.

Another Reason We Overeat

The 2009 study above didn’t really address the issue of food reward, but it addressed a related reason that we overeat. As I mentioned above, it dealt with the concept of sensory-specific satiety.

In the study, the researchers fed the participants in the study fries and brownies. But the fries and brownies were fed to the participants either with or without condiments (ketchup, mustard, and vanilla cream). And in one circumstance, participants were given fries and brownies without condiments and then with condiments.

What the researchers found is that the participants would eat much greater quantities of both the fries and brownies when the condiments were available.

This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you, since you probably think that ketchup, mustard, and vanilla cream make fries and brownies taste better. But while that might be true, what this study shows is that the participants got tired of the foods (even though fries and brownies are generally pretty addictive). However, once new flavors were introduced, the participants suddenly weren’t as full and were able to eat more of the fries and brownies.

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What’s the takeaway here?

Our bodies know when we’ve had enough natural foods (foods that haven’t been combined with too many other natural or processed foods). But when we start engineering and combining foods, our bodies aren’t able to properly control the amount we eat.

Images: Copyright (c) Giuseppe Porzani from Fotolia