Time to revisit the passive overconsumption hypothesis? Humans show sensitivity to calories in energy-rich meals

Am J Clin Nutr. 2022 Aug 4;116(2):581-588. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqac112.


Background: A possible driver of obesity is insensitivity (passive overconsumption) to food energy density (ED, kcal/g); however, it is unclear whether this insensitivity applies to all meals.

Objectives: We assessed the influence of ED on energy intake (kcal) across a broad and continuous range of EDs comprised of noncovertly manipulated, real-world meals. We also allowed for the possibility that the association between energy intake and ED is nonlinear.

Methods: We completed a secondary analysis of 1519 meals which occurred in a controlled environment as part of a study conducted by Hall and colleagues to assess the effects of food ultra-processing on energy intake. To establish the generalizability of the findings, the analyses were repeated in 32,162 meals collected from free-living humans using data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS). Segmented regressions were performed to establish ED "breakpoints" at which the association between consumed meal ED and mean centered meal caloric intake (kcal) changed.

Results: Significant breakpoints were found in both the Hall et al. data set (1.41 kcal/g) and the NDNS data set (1.75 and 2.94 kcal/g). Centered meal caloric intake did not increase linearly with consumed meal ED, and this pattern was captured by a 2-component ("volume" and "calorie content" [biologically derived from the sensing of fat, carbohydrate, and protein]) model of physical meal size (g), in which volume is the dominant signal with lower energy-dense foods and calorie content is the dominant signal with higher energy-dense foods.

Conclusions: These analyses reveal that, on some level, humans are sensitive to the energy content of meals and adjust meal size to minimize the acute aversive effects of overconsumption. Future research should consider the relative importance of volume and calorie-content signals, and how individual differences impact everyday dietary behavior and energy balance.

Keywords: calorie content; energy balance; energy density; energy intake; meal size; passive overconsumption; satiation; satiety; ultra-processing; volume.

MeSH terms

  • Diet
  • Energy Intake*
  • Humans
  • Meals*
  • Nutrition Surveys
  • Obesity