The modern diet is full of addictive foods. By one estimate, 62% of the US food supply contains sufficient proportions of salt, sugar, and fat to hack our brain chemistry.[*]
The consequences of these “hyper-palatable foods” are undeniable. In a sense, the obesity crisis is a crisis of food addiction.
Fortunately, a little knowledge about hyper-palatability goes a long way. You can design your diet to be rewarding without being addictive.
You’ll learn tips for doing so in a moment. First, though, let’s understand what we’re up against.
What are Hyper-Palatable Foods?
Hyper-palatable foods are foods that are extra (“hyper”) appetizing. Because they’re tastier, they’re easier to overeat.
When you think of addictive foods, what comes to mind? French fries? Chips? Cookies? Ice cream?
Your intuitions are accurate. Junky, sugary, fried, Franken-foods are hyper-palatable. Whole foods are not.
Beef lo mein from the local Chinese joint is addictive. A carrot is not.
Biscotti are addictive. Roasted salmon is not.
You get the idea. If it’s processed, it’s probably hyper-palatable.
Perhaps the most rigorous definition of hyper-palatability comes from a 2019 paper published in Obesity.[*] In the paper, Dr. Tera Fazzino and her colleagues argue that a food is addictive if it:
- Contains over 25% calories from fat and over 0.3% sodium
- Contains over 20% calories from fat and 20% calories from sugar
- Contains over 40% calories from carbs and over 0.2% sodium
According to this analysis, various combos of salt, sugar, and fat make food more tempting. And of the over 7,800 foods in the US food system database, 62% fit at least one criterion for hyper-palatability.
Hyperpalatablity and Overeating
Hyper-palatable foods are easy to overeat. And when people overeat, they gain weight and suffer various metabolic insults.
Let’s review a well-designed study to see this effect in action.
In the study, researchers had twenty adults consume one of two diets: an “ultra-processed diet” and a whole foods diets.[*] The participants could eat as much as they wanted for two weeks, then they switched to the other diet. (Each participant served as their own control.)
You can guess what happened. On the processed (aka, hyper-palatable) diet, participants consumed more calories and gained more weight.
This result is a microcosm of what’s happening in America. People are overeating, putting on fat, and suffering long-term health consequences.
And it all starts with food addiction.
Why Are Certain Foods Addictive?
Ultra-processed foods don’t satisfy like whole foods satisfy. They lack fiber, protein, and other nutrients that promote fullness.
A jumbo soda has jumbo calories, but good luck filling up on Pepsi.
But food addiction goes deeper than satiety.
For instance, food companies know that fat plus sugar triggers similar changes in brain chemistry as addictive drugs.[*] They know your brain laps up this combo like a hungry cat lapping up warm milk.
The times have changed—most of the world has yearly access to food—but our brains haven’t. We’re knuckle-draggers around sugar, and food scientists know it.
A similar logic applies to sodium. We evolved to crave this scarce and essential mineral, but today it’s overused in refined foods.
To be clear, we need nutrients like sodium and fat to maintain health (don’t avoid them!). But combining them (especially with sugar) creates a formula for overeating.
How To Break Up With Hyper-Palatable Foods
Because you’re reading this article, you’ve already taken the first step: understanding the problem. Now let’s review some practical tips.
#1: Eat a whole foods diet
Highly-processed foods are addictive. Whole foods are not.
To reduce the risk of overeating, prioritize whole foods like:
These foods contain fiber, protein, and fat to fill you up. And although fruit does contain sugar, that sugar is complexed with fiber to increase satiety.
#2: Limit sugar and processed foods
This tip is the other side of the same coin. When you eat more whole foods, you’ll eat fewer processed foods.
You don’t need to swear off packaged foods entirely. But when you do dabble, be sure to read labels carefully.
Is the food high in sugar? Is it high in fat plus carbs? Is it high in sodium? All of these features will make it more addictive.
#3: Focus on protein and fiber
How much protein do you need? Shoot for 1.2 to 1.6 grams of daily protein per kilogram of body weight to support satiety and muscle maintenance.[*] (About 100-130 grams of protein for a 180-pound person.)
To get enough fiber, eat lots of plants. Assuming your gut can tolerate fiber, higher intakes are generally better.
#4: Consider a Keto or low-carb diet
Restricting carbs can also help with cravings. Here are a few reasons why:
- Being in ketosis reduces hunger hormones like ghrelin and neuropeptide Y[*]
- Fewer carbs = fewer blood sugar fluctuations = a more stable appetite
- Most hyper-palatable foods aren’t on the Keto menu (too many carbs!)
Check out this article for more tips on controlling carb cravings.
#5: Sleep well
#6: Track food intake
Logging meals increases personal accountability. If you know you must dutifully log that bag of cheese doodles, you probably won’t eat it.
Whole Foods Are Rewarding Too
You don’t need hyper-palatable foods to make your taste buds happy. Whole foods are up to the task.
So dig in, enjoy the flavor, and relax into comfortable satiety. That’s the foundation of a sustainable diet.