It’s no secret that foods higher in fat, sugar and sodium are often those they make us salivate a bit more than a big bowl of lettuce would. The question we want to dive into day is: Do these highly palatable foods do a disservice when it comes to weight and fat loss? A short answer, possibly. Long answer, keep reading and let’s dive in…
It has been long understood that hunger is not the sole contributor for the nutrition choices we make. However, the two “circuits” in our brain that help us determine WHEN we should eat are the hunger circuit and the satiety circuit. Dr. Anne-Kathrin Eiselt goes over this well when talking about how our brain controls and regulates feeding behaviors, but for this article we won’t go too in-depth there. What’s the most important to note is that there ARE regulatory circuits that control our hunger and satiety at a physiological level. And these brain circuits are spoken to directly by various hormones and cells within our body.
Outside of the actual requirement our bodies need, food consumption is also highly dependent on environment. Things such as emotions (stress, sadness) and social events (holidays, birthdays, weddings, celebrations) are also primary drivers in our eating patterns. A common thread amongst these more environmental determinants is that more often than not, the food we are eating in these situations encourage a dopamine effect, or a “feel good” effect. In other words, food that takes good makes us feel good. Foods that taste good are also regarded as “highly palatable” foods and they are almost always foods that are higher in fats, sugar and sodium.
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork for how and why we choose the foods that we do, let’s dive into the question you’re all here for:
Will eating high-palatable foods (during a deficit) cause a lack of results when it comes to weight loss/fat loss goals?
If you’ve made it this far, I’m going to assume you’re here for the research and what data has shown overtime when it comes to this question, and I’m here to give you just that.
Before even diving into deficit or fat loss phases of nutrition, it’s worth setting the stage with this important finding as it helps answer the overarching question. In a recent study done in 2023, it was concluded that our brains are extremely adaptive to high-palatable foods. The researchers in this study took the findings of this randomized, controlled trial and interpreted the data to show evidence of “a direct effect of high-fat, high-sugar foods on neurobehavioral adaptations that may increase the risk of overeating and weight gain.”
So how does this apply to weight loss or implementing a deficit phase?
This is where this article will become a bit more nuanced, but we hope to answer this in a generalized way that shows supportive data to back up my opinion.
What we are NOT saying here is that eating higher fat or higher sugar foods will automatically hinder your weight or fat loss goals. What we are bringing to your attention, based on the findings, is that eating highly-palatable foods regularly (and it making up a significant percentage of your daily intake) could lead to a more difficult time when implementing a planned deficit phase. The article linked above showed that the more often highly palatable food is consumed, the more our brain (and body) WANTS that kind of food. If you then read and look at the findings of this study, you’ll learn that the “reward response” that high palatable food produce is intensified when calories are restricted (i.e. in a deficit). Thus, being able to successfully implement a deficit phase WHILE also prioritizing micronutrients via whole foods may be more difficult IF high-palatable foods are making up the majority of your daily calories/macronutrients.
So, what’s the takeaway?
Our advice as coaches would be to limit your intake of highly palatable foods during a deficit phase, especially if you are in a pretty significant deficit and here’s why:
If higher fat and higher sugar foods are being consumed, then your body (and brain) is going to continue “craving” these foods and as your calories become more and more decreased, this could really pose an issue with adherence AND finding some kind of satiety.
If you’re consuming mostly calorie-dense foods in a deficit, then you are likely missing out on essential minerals and nutrients that you primarily get from nutrient-dense foods.
Highly palatable foods are calorie dense and aren’t necessarily high volume foods. A big thing I encourage to clients during deficit phases is to really ramp up higher volume foods (veggies, whole grains, lean proteins). This will help with satiety in 2 ways; 1) this food is taking up more literal space in your digestive tract and 2) these foods are higher in fiber, which improve satiety and also regulate optimal digestion.