by Nick Tumminello, NSCA-CPT and James Krieger, MS
Personal Training Quarterly October 2019
Vol 6, Issue 2
It is well-established in the preponderance of scientific evidence that the relationship of how many calories one consumes per day to the number one expends per day is the single most important factor when it comes to fat loss. Reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful fat loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize (2,8). This relationship does not discount that some calories are more nutrient dense than others. It simply demonstrates that one can be both well-nourished and overfed. Food quality and food quantity are important factors that should be considered together; as important as it is to eat high-quality, nutrient-dense foods for general health, one can still gain fat from eating “healthy” if you eat too many calories relative to what one is expending (6).
“Food quality and food quantity are important factors that should be considered together; as important as it is to eat high-quality, nutrient-dense foods for general health, one can still gain fat from eating ‘healthy’ if you eat too many calories relative to what one is expending (6).”Tweet this quote
That said, it is generally recommended to emphasize fruits and vegetables and high-quality meats, eggs, and fish (or protein substitutes, for vegetarians and vegans), while limiting refined foods, simple sugars, hydrogenated oil, and alcohol (12). This fat loss nutrition advice is given because it not only emphasizes nutrient-dense foods but also is generally lower in calories than things like fast food and candy. However, it is well known that the long-term success of a diet depends on adherence (7).
This article will demonstrate that consistently consuming high-reward foods is something that can make consuming fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins less satisfying, and therefore more difficult to stick with. This article provides practical guidelines for limiting high-reward foods and demonstrates why minimizing high-reward foods is a simple and well-supported strategy for long-term adherence to a nutritional approach that emphasizes high-quality, nutrient-dense, lower calorie foods.
High-reward foods are foods that have properties that signal high energy density (i.e., the number of calories per gram of food). Food properties that can signal high energy density include texture (signifies fat) and sweetness (indicates carbohydrate). Since food shortage would be a threat to human survival, the human brain has evolved to value these food properties. Foods that contain these properties can stimulate reward centers in the brain, reinforcing the desire and behavior to consume these foods. Modern food technology has concentrated these properties, enhancing the reward values of food and driving people to eat more. The impact of high-reward foods can be so powerful that people can spontaneously overeat by up to 54% above their maintenance calories when they have easy access to such foods (13).
High-reward foods are very calorie dense and often very tasty. They are often high in added fats and/or sugar. Reward properties may also be enhanced through the use of salt or monosodium glutamate (MSG). Examples of high-reward foods include:
Because high-reward foods are so easy to overeat, they can present a barrier to dietary adherence. Thus, limiting high-reward foods is an important component of any successful dietary strategy. Since high-reward foods are so prevalent, the best way to minimize intake is to control the personal food environment. This can include reducing the visibility of high-reward foods, and also creating effort barriers to obtaining them (10). Examples include:
It is important to note that food reward exists on a continuum ranging from low to high, and high-reward foods can vary in terms of calorie content, serving size, etc. There is an aspect of individuality when applying the above tips, as different people have different sensitivities to food reward, and a certain food that is rewarding to one person may not be to another. So, one must experiment with applying the above general guidelines to find what best fits them individually when it comes to practical steps to help reduce the food reward value of the diet in the long term.
High-reward foods are what is called a supernormal stimuli, sometimes called a supernormal releaser. Supernormal stimuli, which is a term from ethology (the study of animal behavior) coined by Tinbergen in 1948, which refers to a behavioral phenomenon whereby animals respond more intensely to exaggerated versions of stimuli over the normal stimuli for which they evolved (1,18,20).
Research on supernormal stimuli has been done since the 1950s on a diverse range of animals including insects (14), fish (16), birds and mammals (5) and demonstrated to elicit nurturing, mating, and fighting behaviors (15). The following are some research examples:
It is important to note the term supernormal stimuli does not just describe an artificially created stimulus. It also describes naturally occurring morphological features that are at the end of a normal distribution (15). For example, in 1985, Bielert and Anderson found that female baboons with exaggerated perineal swellings (in layman’s terms a larger than normal swelling of the bottom associated with the sexually receptive period of their oestrous cycle) aroused greater sexual interest in males (5).
Animals and humans are hardwired to respond to certain stimuli that has a survival value in evolutionary terms. Just like animals respond more strongly, and often preferentially, to the exaggerated stimuli, humans can be similarly exploited by exaggerated version of foods their ancestors would find back when humans lived in the wild.
There are two ways high-reward foods act as supernormal stimuli and can therefore hijack basic biologically driven responses that can potentially cause maladaptive eating behaviors that hinder fat loss and lead to weight gain:
With the two above points in mind, not only can high-reward foods cause one to be less satisfied by whole foods, and therefore make adherence to a diet that emphasizes whole foods more difficult, but also be more likely to eat larger portion size meals. Since high-reward foods can appeal to human instincts more than the whole foods, the supernormal stimuli can also be a driving force in over-eating.
Given that high-reward foods provide a supernormal stimuli that can exploit how our brains work in a way that can lead to changes in our perception of whole foods, it makes sense to recommend minimizing exposure to high-reward foods (supernormal stimulus) as a general recommendation for fat loss nutrition and promote long-term healthy eating behaviors. This general diet guideline recognizes how the various features of a stimulus can elicit a particular behavior and the importance of creating and developing adaptive behaviors are conducive for fat loss and long-term health. In that, the less one is exposed to an exaggerated (supernormal) version of a stimulus (in this case, high-reward foods and larger portion meals), the more likely one is to build a stronger attraction and satisfaction with consuming whole foods.
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