Researchers have discovered that you are more likely to crave bread and other carbohydrates when you are hungry. Have a habit of skipping meals? Study shows that people who sit down to eat after an overnight fast are more likely to ignore protein, fats and vegetables and head straight for high-calorie carbohydrate and starches first.
Scientific point of view
The news may not come as a surprise to long-term dieters, or anyone used to bingeing on pasta or potato chips on an empty stomach. But the study also revealed some telling details about food choices and the order in which we eat different kinds of foods. When given the opportunity to eat a salad and a plate of French fries, for example, people who started with the starchy food downed significantly more calories per meal than those who did the reverse.
The findings have implications for people who regularly miss meals, whether because of hectic schedules or for the deliberate purpose of losing weight. Nationwide, about 15 per cent of adults say they have fasted to slim down, and a number of popular diets encourage intermittent fasting.
After skipping a meal or two, people naturally consume more calories than they otherwise would when finally given the opportunity to eat. Studies have also shown that high-calorie foods stimulate greater activity in reward centres of the brain when people eat them after missing breakfast.
Researchers wanted to know whether hunger, in addition to causing greater caloric intake, would also cause people to gravitate toward certain types of foods when given an array of choices. To find out, they recruited 128 students, who were assigned to one of two groups. One group was told to fast for 18 hours – starting at 6 p.m. – and then to show up the next day for a buffet-style lunch. The second bunch of students, serving as the control group, did not fast the night before.
Over the course of 12-weekday lunches, the researchers studied the students as they arrived at lunch table. The subjects had their pick of starches, including dinner rolls and fries, as well as vegetables, beverages and proteins like chicken and cheese. To prevent the foods’ placement from influencing the results, the researchers rearranged the items at each meal. They also measured the amounts the subjects served themselves, using scales embedded in the tables.
Those in the group that had fasted, it turned out, were more likely to begin their meals with starches, eating the bread or French fries before anything else about a third of the time, compared with just over 10 per cent of the time with the control group. Those who fasted were also less likely to eat vegetables first. Only a quarter of them did so, compared with about half of the people in the control group. The researchers wrote, “starting their meal with a particular food led all participants to consume 46.7 per cent more calories of it” compared with other foods. They also found that people who chose not to eat the vegetables first consumed about 20 per cent less of them.
Those who went straight for the starches ultimately ate about 20 per cent more calories overall than their peers.
This shows that what you choose first is important when it comes to how much you ultimately eat. Hunger sets off a desire for carbohydrates because of the body’s tendency to maximize efficiency. It’s a quicker, higher-energy source. You’re essentially maximizing calories per time, so you replenish your deficit faster.
For regular dieters and people who frequently find themselves ravenous after missing meals, the lesson is to keep high-calorie foods out of reach, or at least make them less visible in the pantry or kitchen cabinets.