If you eat high-calorie foods first at a meal, it can affect how many calories you eat overall.
Picture this: it’s lunchtime, and you’re really, really hungry. You woke up late, you skipped breakfast, and you’ve been going all morning without a chance to grab a snack. It’s finally time to eat, and you’re facing a buffet – some starchy foods, some proteins, and some veggies. You load up your plate, sit down, and raise your fork, anxious to dig in. Now, imagine what happens next as you stare down at your meat, your starch and your vegetables. Which food do you dive into first?
Chances are good that you picked the starch, or maybe the protein, but probably not the vegetables. While it’s been known for some time that people tend to eat more when they get overly hungry, until recently no one had ever really paid attention to what foods people choose after a long stretch without eating. But a new study¹ aimed to do just that, to find out what really hungry people eat first—and what they eat most—after 18 hours without food.
Study subjects were divided into two groups: half were asked to fast for 18 hours, while the other half didn’t. They were then brought to a buffet laid out with a couple of starch, protein and vegetable choices, and the researchers looked at what they served themselves, what they ate first, and how much they ate altogether.
You might expect that those who hadn’t eaten for 18 hours would help themselves to larger portions from the buffet than those who didn’t—and you’d be right. But the other noticeable thing was this: compared with those who hadn’t skipped a meal, the meal skippers also ate the high-calorie items on their plates first. And they also ate more of the food that they chose to eat first—nearly 50% more than those who didn’t fast. In other words, those who went too long without eating took in a lot more calories. Not only because they took too much food to start with, but also because they filled up on the highest calorie foods first.
For those trying to control their calories, there’s some food for thought here. For starters, it’s pretty much a given that if you go too long without eating, you’re likely to eat more than usual when you finally sit down to eat. And, given the chance, you’ll probably serve yourself more food than usual to start with, too. Right there, you’re setting the stage to take in more calories than you ordinarily would. But if, as this study suggests, you’re also more likely to dig into the highest calorie items on your plate first, you could wind up taking in a lot more calories overall than if you made a point to eat the low calorie items first.
Now, you might be thinking—‘So what? If I’m going to eat the whole plate of food anyway, what difference does it make if I eat my noodles before my broccoli?’ Good point. But here’s the thing: you might not eat the whole plate of food if you eat the lowest calorie food first. As you fill up on the low-calorie broccoli, you might end up eating fewer of the high-calorie noodles—and fewer calories for your meal overall.
¹ Wansink et al. Arch Int Med 172(12)2012
Susan is the Sr. Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife, where she is responsible for the development of nutrition education and training materials, and is one of the primary authors of the Herbalife-sponsored blog, www.discovergoodnutrition.com. She is a Registered Dietitian and holds two Board Certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management. Susan is also a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Susan graduated with distinction in biology from the University of Colorado, and received her master’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She then completed her dietetic internship at the University of Kansas. Susan has taught extensively and developed educational programs targeted to individuals, groups and industry in her areas of expertise, including health promotion, weight management and sports nutrition.
Prior to her role at Herbalife, she was the assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, and has held appointments as adjunct professor in nutrition at Pepperdine University and as lecturer in nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Susan was a consultant to the (then) Los Angeles Raiders for six seasons, and was a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times Health Section for two years. She is a co-author of 23 research papers, 14 book chapters, and was a co-author of two books for the public: “What Color is Your Diet?” and “The L.A. Shape Diet” by Dr. David Heber, published by Harper Collins in 2001 and 2004, respectively.