What do you call those foods you can’t stop eating?
- Addictive foods,
- Hedonic foods,
- Bingeworthy foods,
- Foods with no brakes,
- Crack foods,
- Seductive foods,
- Lizard chow?
In our Macros Masterclass, we call them Kryptonite foods. Kryptonite foods are the ones we feel powerless to resist when we’re near them. Like Superman, our powers are weakened by something mysterious and almost magical.
The words and hormones surrounding food can quickly become complex and confusing. But numbers can bring simplicity and clarity.
Previously we’ve talked a lot about the properties of food that align with managing our hunger, increasing satiety and eating less without unsustainable willpower.
In this article, we will look at the properties of food that make us eat much more. Armed with this knowledge, you will be able to know kryptonite food when you see it and avoid it, or at least treat it as you would a recreational drug.
- We tend to eat more when our food contains a combination of fat and carbs together.
- But beyond just carbs and fat, we appear to have a bliss point for individual sources of energy (e.g. starch, sugar, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat). We reach sensory-specific satiety earlier with foods that contain mainly in one form.
- Modern ultra-processed foods combine multiple energy sources to overdrive our dopamine response. Because they target our primal survival instincts, we can feel powerless to resist kryptonite foods when exposed.
- It’s smart to minimise our exposure to kryptonite foods, especially if we feel ‘addicted’ to them. However, prioritising nutrient-dense, higher-satiety foods empower us to resist the pull of kryptonite foods.
For a longer list of kryptonite foods to avoid, check out the printable food lists in our community here.
What Makes Kryptonite Foods So Special?
According to the NOVA classification system, ultra-processed foods combine refined ingredients and food additives rarely used in home cooking.
But one of the major impediments to a UPF designation being accepted into the US Dietary Guidelines seems to be how to define an ultra-processed food.
For example, according to the NOVA classification, a commercial protein powder might be considered ultra-processed. However, it is hard to overeat and has positive health benefits compared to other engineered food-like products.
Meanwhile, nuts, cheese, and milk are minimally processed but easy to overeat, but they would be classed as minimally processed.
So, let’s look at the factors that can help us to quantitatively identify foods that many find ‘addictive’ due to their unique nutrient signature.
Perhaps there’s a better way to identify ultra-processed foods that drive hedonic eating.
Is it the Carbs?
Some people point the finger at carbs as the primary culprit. However, our data analysis shows that while a lower-carb diet aligns with eating less, very low-fat, high-carb foods also align with eating less.
In the middle of the chart, we see that it’s the combination of fat and carbs with minimal protein and fibre (e.g. doughnuts, milk chocolate, croissants, pizza, etc.) that many people classify as ‘bad carbs’ that they feel powerless to resist.
There seems to be a bliss point for non-fibre carbs at around 45%.
So if it’s not just carbs, maybe it’s the type of carbs (e.g. sugar, starch, fructose or lactose)? Many people feel they are ‘addicted to sugar’.
But when we look at the data from the NHANES Nutritional Surveys and people using Nutrient Optimiser, we see that foods that contain a lot of sugar are surprisingly hard to overeat. Fruitarians, who live on fruit alone, are often skinny.
Instead, it seems we eat the most when foods contain about 20% sugar. It appears we reach sensory-specific satiety and lose interest in more sugar but still have room for other kryptonite foods if they are available.
This makes sense when you consider that we have limited room to store glucose in our bodies. Once the glycogen in our liver and muscles is topped up and our blood glucose is high, we seem to lose interest in high-carb foods. But we still have plenty of capacity to store more fat.
Similarly, foods that provide most of their energy from starch are hard to overeat. Plain potatoes and rice are relatively satiating — many healthy traditional cultures get most of their energy from them.
Most of us would probably find a boiled potato or rice unappetising. But when we combine them with fat, we create chips and fried rice, which are much more palatable. Big Food has known this secret for a while and has perfected this hyperpalatable formulation, optimising them to multiple bliss points.
The Bliss Point
Moskowitz went on to work for Cadbury Schweppes, Campbells Soup, General Foods, Kraft and PepsiCo and other big food companies to maximise the dopamine response to food and hence profit.
Creating processed foods optimised to our multiple bliss points has become standard practice in the food industry to get more ‘stomach share’ and profit for shareholders.
Is it the Fat?
Mainstream nutrition guidance tends to point the finger at fat, particularly saturated fat and cholesterol.
The chart below, created from one hundred and fifty thousand days of data from people using Nutrient Optimiser, who tend to be on a lower carb diet, shows that fat is the least satiating of the macronutrients (per calorie). We may feel satisfied quickly with energy-dense, high-fat foods, but we have had to consume a lot more energy to achieve that satiety.
But most people don’t binge on butter, which is 60% saturated fat. As shown in the chart below, while a very low-fat diet is hard to overconsume, we consume less energy once saturated fat makes up a significant proportion of our diet.
We see a similar trend with polyunsaturated fats. While walnuts (62% MPUFAs) are tasty, they’re not as binge-worthy as some ultra-processed foods that contain PUFAs along with other energy sources.
Again, we see a similar trend with monounsaturated fat. Most people can’t drink unlimited olive oil (which is 73% monounsaturated fat).
Intriguingly, there seems also to be an optimal bliss point for cholesterol at around 300mg/2000 calories. Foods that naturally contain more cholesterol tend to be nutrient-dense and satiating.
Similarly, there seems to be a bliss point for salt, which peaks at around 3000mg/2000 calories. Once we get enough salt, our food tastes ‘too salty’.
So, the bottom line is that there seems to be a limit for each energy source, beyond which we don’t eat much more.
But what if we could create foods that simultaneously hit our bliss point of all the energy sources that would make food irresistible?
The Magic of Food Combining
We don’t usually eat single foods. We combine them to make recipes to balance our requirements for protein vs energy from fat and carbs.
Creative chefs, loving mothers and doting grandmas have been making ‘comfort foods’ that give us a little extra pleasure for centuries.
We’re always optimising to find the right balance of protein and energy (e.g. fish and chips, steak and potatoes, chicken and rice etc). It seems 12% is the magical bliss point for protein.
Modern, ultra-processed foods take this to another level. Not only do they combine fat and carbs, but they combine different types of carbs (e.g. sugar, starch, fructose and lactose) with different fats (e.g. monounsaturated fat and saturated fat) in unique ways that drive our dopamine levels to new highs that can’t be achieved with whole foods.
While there’s nothing wrong with comfort foods at Christmas and Thanksgiving, we’re now surrounded by foods engineered to be way more addictive than Grandma’s secret recipe.
To fight back against modern food technology, we can reverse-engineer overeating to give us a fighting chance of intelligently avoiding these foods.
Rather than merely considering the macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat), we found the best way to model the highest energy intakes was to consider the energy from non-fibre carbs and the different fats (i.e. monounsaturated fat, saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat).
The chart below shows the weightings for each energy-containing nutrient in the multivariate analysis of three hundred and sixteen thousand days of data from free-living humans.
We can use this understanding to create a kryptonite scale from 0 to 100 based on our likelihood of overeating. The image below shows some popular foods with a high kryptonite score.
If you want to take a deep dive into the data, check out the interactive Tableau chart here (on your computer), which shows the kryptonite score for thirteen thousand foods from the USDA database.
Use the tabs across the top to see the different food groups.
If you mouse over the food, you’ll see a pop-up with more data.
To avoid becoming an obesity statistic, it’d be smart to treat anything with a kryptonite score above 90% as a recreational drug.
If you have some extra weight to lose, you’d be wise to minimise any food with a kryptonite score greater than 70%.
But rather than living in fear of ‘bad foods’, we would prefer Optimisers invest most of their attention in adding nutrient-dense, high-satiety foods (i.e. green points towards the bottom right of the charts).
Example Kryptonite Foods
The best example of a natural food that we find pleasurable and makes us grow is breast milk.
Breast milk is the perfect food that makes growing babies feel happy and grow quickly, with a macro split of 38% carbs, 55% fat and 6% protein. The fat breakdown is 26% SFA, 21% MUFA and 6% PUFA.
Milk provides a lot of energy with some nutrients — breast milk has a nutrient density score of 20%. It also has a Kryptonite score of 100%.
Now, let’s look at coconut cream pie, which tops our list of kryptonite foods.
We see it has a similar macronutrient profile to breast milk.
But it has an even more balanced split of 21% energy from saturated fat and 22% monounsaturated fat that doesn’t occur naturally. The coconut cream pie also has a nutrient density score of 10%, lower than breast milk.
We get a massive dose of concentrated energy from kryptonite foods but with minimal protein, minerals and vitamins, which sets us up for cravings and increased hunger later.
Satiety vs Hedonic Eating
Hedonic eating is eating for pleasure when we don’t need energy.
But if we equate hedonic eating with overeating, the inference is that higher-satiety foods are not enjoyable or tasty.
But it’s not really that simple. Higher satiety, nutrient-dense foods can also be full of flavour because they contain the other essential nutrients our body craves.
We’re just starting to understand how various hormones influence how much we eat, with much talk about GLP-1, leptin, ghrelin, cholecystokinin, insulin etc.
Dopamine is one neurotransmitter that’s been getting a lot of attention lately, thanks to the work of Professor Andrew Huberman and psychiatrist Anna Lembke. Dopamine is often associated with negative addiction to drugs, food and porn.
But some dopamine is normal and healthy. Mice lacking dopamine will starve to death — they can’t muster the motivation to eat the food right in front of their nose!
When you see a notification on your phone, dopamine drives you to pick up the phone, although the result may be good or bad.
- When you pick up your phone and open the app, you may find that you’ve won a million dollars, see a cute cat video that makes you laugh or learn that you’ve got a new baby nephew.
- But you may also pick up the phone and learn of the death of a grandparent, or more likely, just get sucked into endless scrolling or arguing on Twitter with that person that is wrong.
Dopamine vs Serotonin
In one of my favourite studies, Supra-Additive Effects of Combing Fat and Carbohydrate on Food Reward (Small et al., 2018), researchers showed that we get a healthy dopamine response from energy fat and carbs separately.
As shown in the figure below, we value fat slightly more than carbs. But when we combine fat and carbs, we experience a supra-additive dopamine response that can make some people feel ‘addicted to food’.
While it’s still early days for clinical research, more recent studies by Kevin Hall and colleagues at the NIH have begun to focus on the role of dopamine in overeating and how macronutrients impact dopamine differently (2022, 2023).
One way to frame satiety vs overeating is the balance between:
- serotonin – associated with contentment and happiness, and
- dopamine – associated with wanting, reinforcing learning and habits, and driving us to consume more.
Serlie et al. (2021) highlighted that elevated serotonin is considered a hunger suppressant or a ‘satiety signal’; hence drugs that enhance the action of tryptophan, an amino acid precursor to serotonin, are often used in obesity treatment.
In this context, it makes sense that protein would be satiating because it provides tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin. But, as you can see in the diagram below, it’s not just protein; we need a range of other essential nutrients to convert tryptophan to 5-HTP (i.e. iron, magnesium, vitamin B6 and folic acid) and then 5-HTP to serotonin (i.e. vitamin C, vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium). Rather than just protein, we need enough of all the essential nutrients to feel satisfied, content and happy.
Dopamine is often associated with pleasure and enjoyment but is more about wanting and motivation. But if serotonin is low, we are less content and more likely to seek out quick dopamine hits and thus feel addicted to kryptonite foods.
So if you’ve made it this far, you will have learned that the factors that drive satiety and hedonic overeating are related but different.
- Foods that drive us to eat more contain energy that gives us a dopamine hit and pleasure.
- Each energy source seems to have a ‘bliss point’ beyond which we don’t get more pleasure. Hence, we don’t overeat foods that provide most of their energy from one source (e.g. starch, sugar, saturated fat, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat).
- Foods that combine fat and carbs are rare in nature. Natural foods like milk, cheese and nuts are as close as nature gets to this magical combination.
- But modern processed foods take this to the next level and combine these energy sources to hit our bliss point for each energy source precisely.
- Most of us struggle to resist these ‘kryptonite’ foods when they are available, especially when hungry or malnourished.
- Meanwhile, high-satiety foods provide the protein and nutrients that boost serotonin and create contentment. This makes us less susceptible to foods designed to overdrive our dopamine circuits.
Avoiding foods with a higher kryptonite score would be wise if you’re trying to lose weight. Don’t have them in the house — because you know you will eat them when times get tough — and try to avoid places exposed to them and habitually consume them. Once you remove kryptonite foods from your environment, you will be able to trust your healthy appetite signals.
Kryptonite foods usually contain a long list of ingredients, with most of their energy coming from a combination of refined grains, refined sugar and industrial seed oils with flavours to make them palatable, colouring to make them look great, and perhaps some added synthetic vitamins to cover for the absence of nutrients in the raw ingredients.
The graphic below shows some popular kryptonite fast foods. To find more, check out the interactive Tableau chart here (on your computer).
But rather than simply exerting your limited willpower to resist kryptonite foods, you can proactively build up your strength by prioritising higher satiety, nutrient-dense foods. These foods will make you feel content and reduce your cravings so that kryptonite foods will lose power over you before long.
For more inspiration on combining nutrient-dense food into amazing recipes, check out our series of NutriBooster recipe books here.
You can also jump into this Tableau chart (on your computer), where we have laid out all our 1400+ recipes in terms of nutrient-dense vs protein % vs satiety. Just click on one of the recipes to view more details and open a picture.
- Sugar, Carbs, and Beyond: Decoding Cravings and Food Addiction
- How to Stop “Food Addiction” by Understanding Your Brain Chemistry
- Moneyball Nutrition: Leverage Big Data to Crush Your Hunger with the Nutrients You Need to Thrive
- What is Nutrient Density (and Why It Matters)?
- NutriBooster recipes
- Macros Masterclass
- Micros Masterclass