Hyperpalatability: Why Some Food are so Easy to Overeat

(and how to deal with hyperpalatability and cravings)

Do you deeply enjoy food, and want to develop healthy lifestyle habits (and experience healthy weight loss) without sacrificing your Epicurean sensibilities? But do you also struggle with overeating, even when you have the best intentions? Do you sometimes feel powerless over overindulgence, especially with specific foods (or in certain situations)? If you answered “yes” to these questions, I think you are really going to enjoy today’s article about hyperpalatability, food cravings, healthy eating, and weight loss. Because I promise you, there is brain science behind what you might perceive as weak willpower, and you can harness your biology to unlock a healthier lifestyle and a more peaceful relationship with food!

“Hyperpalatability” is a big, science-y word that’s not used a lot in discussion of nutrition, but before we get into what hyperpalatability actually is, let’s start with a thought experiment…

Picture yourself at a Super Bowl party (or a baby shower, or a cocktail party, or any open buffet of finger foods).

Which foods are you most attracted to? Which foods do you promise yourself that you will only eat one (or a nibble of one), but you end up eating two (or five)? Which foods have that “wow” factor of deliciousness that makes them very hard to put down, or leave unfinished?

Of course, tastes differ, but foods like…

  • Cakes or cookies
  • Chocolate
  • Pastries (sweet or savory)
  • Cheeses (or cheese dips)
  • Chips or crackers
  • Cured meats like bacon or salami
  • Pizza
  • Fried foods
  • Seasoned roasted nuts
  • Ice cream

… often top the list.

As diet trends come and go, isolated food groups become the nutrition villain of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, weight issues, or “addictive” eating. Currently (as of 2024), sugar still tends to dominate the discussion, but the vague term “processed foods” has also become popular as a culprit of compulsive overeating.

You might notice, however, if you review the list that I made of crave-worthy foods, that not all these foods share characteristics in common. Some foods, like cheese or salami, are extremely high in fat. Other foods, like chips or cake, tend to be higher in carbohydrates and/or sugar. Still other foods, like seasoned roasted nuts, may be a “health food” that triggers problematic overeating.

It becomes apparent that we can’t blame cravings on one particular ingredient or type of food – there seems to be a more “umbrella” characteristic that encourages overeating. And this food quality is – you guessed it – “hyperpalatability.”

Think about the word “palatable.” It means that something tastes pleasant, and is enjoyable to eat.

Then, take that concept and put it on overdrive. That is hyperpalatability. It’s not just tasty… it’s ultra-tasty.

And several studies have begun to pinpoint what causes a food to drift from “palatable” to “hyperpalatable,” and there are a few principles that characterize these various foods. One study identifies:

  • A combination of fat and salt (> 25% calories from fat, ≥ 0.30% sodium by weight)
  • A combination of fat and sugar (> 20% calories from fat, > 20% calories from sugar)
  • A combination of carbohydrates and salt (> 40% calories from carbohydrates, ≥ 0.20% sodium by weight)

You’ll notice the key phrase here: “combination.” Combinations tend to define hyperpalatability. The more factors of fat, sugar, carbohydrates, and salt that you combine (especially in high-calorie foods), the more cravings (and overeating) a food tends to trigger.

Think again about the list I wrote at the beginning. Cake, cookies, and ice cream are combinations of fat, carbohydrates, and sugar. Cheese and salami are combinations of fat and salt. Chips and crackers are often combinations of carbohydrates and salt, if not also fat (especially once you start dipping it in something). And once you roast nuts with oil, salt, and sometimes sugar (think honey-roasted peanuts), you have a hyperpalatable, calorie-dense combination, as well.

Because of our evolutionary background, we tend to overeat when we can – this is to help stave off starvation. This is why we have a strong attraction to hyperpalatable foods. But historically, we didn’t have the same access to these foods that we have today. Our prehistoric relatives weren’t able to crack open a family-sized bag of cookies and accidentally polish them off while answering e-mails, or pop open a pint of ice cream and unintentionally eat the whole thing while watching TV.

While not all hyperpalatable foods are ultra-processed, food processing certainly makes hyperpalatability easier to achieve (and to package attractively). Even the health food industry has been affected by this – even if a food is organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, and vegan, it can still check all the boxes of hyperpalatability and drive overeating behaviors. Fast food gets scapegoated, but more elevated restaurants also use hyperpalatability to make foods delicious and irresistible.

Our brains and bodies tend not to handle hyperpalatable foods extremely well – most people have difficulty controlling cravings (and hitting the brakes while eating) if their food environments are saturated with these types of food cues. Think about a typical day for yourself – how often are you dealing with these environmental triggers to overeat? Probably at least once or twice a day, when you consider that 62% of foods in the US food system have been identified as meeting the criteria of hyperpalatability. 

The Set Point

But the real stinger of the hyperpalatability conundrum is that we become adjusted to the taste and the “rush” of these types of foods, and while I wouldn’t technically call it an “addiction,” it certainly has the quality of a “use disorder.” We want to eat better, but we have difficulty making positive changes that stick.

This is partly because our brains – specifically the hypothalamus, which regulates eating and energy – can actually become adjusted to the over-consumption of hyperpalatable foods, to the extent that our mental “satisfaction point” can change and influence our eating behaviors, and ultimately our weight. This feedback loop is partly what makes weight loss so difficult. If we don’t adjust the underlying issue of the way we eat (especially our relationship with hyperpalatable foods, our food environments, and our habits), our bodies will fight us. 

Why is understanding hyperpalatability so critical for long-term healthy lifestyle success?

1. It allows us to understand that we are products not only of our choices, but also our environment, and that when we change both our environment and choices, we have the best chance for success.

2. It allows us to detach from decontextualized calorie-counting and to take a bigger-picture look at the quality of our diets and how that impacts the number of calories we eat each day.

3. It allows us to get out of denial that we are eating “pretty healthy,” and to totally re-shape our approach to health and wellness so that we can re-set our natural weight and eat with self-responsibility, freedom, joy, and intention.

The good news is that your brain can be re-set. Here’s how to start:

Working with Hyperpalatability (Instead of Against It)

I’ll be the first to say that the problem with identifying “trigger foods” (and the concept of hyperpalatability in general) is the we can interpret it as a “good food vs. bad food” conversation. But this isn’t about removing foods from your diet. Instead, I have five suggestions to implement to improve your relationship with hyperpalatable foods (because they are foods that we genuinely love and enjoy!), so that you feel more in control of your cravings, more at peace in your body, and more confident in your skin:
Suggestion #1: Increase the nutrition of your overall diet (using the “crowd out” vs. “eliminate/avoid” approach)

This is always the first thing I work on with clients. Before we troubleshoot specific cravings, we just get down to the basics, like: are you…

  • Eating enough calories overall, even in a deficit?
  • Consuming enough protein?
  • Enough fiber?
  • Eating regular meals, not getting overly hungry?
  • Taking in enough actual nutrients, through fruits and vegetables?

This is the “crowd out” vs. “eliminate/avoid” approach. Instead of obsessing over an absolutely sugar-free diet (eliminating the “negatives”), we focus on improving the robustness of what foods should make up the majority of your diet – high-protein, high-fiber, high-color, highly-satiating foods that fill you up and give you authentic, slow-burning energy all day long. Whole foods generally don’t check the boxes for hyperpalatability, so our behavior is easier to control (and we feel more satisfied/full from them faster).

Plus, don’t forget that exercise is part of a healthy diet, as well, because engaging in exercise helps to moderate and reduce appetite, as well. 

So once you have a solid foundation in your overall diet (and you’re not making yourself even more vulnerable to hunger and food cravings), you can take a look at the next suggestion:

Suggestion #2: Tweak your home (or work) environment as much as possible

When it comes to hyperpalatability, environment is key. Think about a typical day, or week. How often are you facing difficult “food triggers”? Maybe you have boxes of cookies or chips at home. Or perhaps you often grab things in the drive-through with your kids. Or maybe you always get coffee at a cafe with irresistible pastries.

It can be really, really helpful to decrease the level of temptation in your life. I’m not making any food rules here. But in terms of research-backed evidence for what helps people stay more consistent with healthy eating, routine environment plays a huge role. We often have narratives for why we must keep certain ultra-tempting food cues in our daily lives (“I have to have these chips around for my kids”), but the reality is that we can probably make tweaks that decrease the tax on our mental willpower. For example, buying sweets or treats in single servings (even if it’s more expensive) can help with moderate enjoyment.

“Food triggers” aren’t just what we keep in our cabinets. They may also be food situations or routines, like…

Suggestion #3: Decrease dining out, takeout, and drive-throughs

In terms of habituation, getting lots of food out certainly “teaches” our appetites and our brains what to expect in terms of taste. In my opinion, the fast food industry isn’t to blame here, because you’re going to have the same issue at almost any restaurant. Fat and sodium tend to be particularly high in commercially-prepared foods, whether you’re paying $5 for a combo or $75 for an appetizer and a main.

This isn’t a food rule that says “don’t dine out” or “drive-throughs are bad for you.” Instead, it’s an issue of scale or frequency. How often are you dining out, or picking up food to go? Could you cut that frequency in half? Or at least by a third? Can you replace almost all convenience meals with simple swaps, like easier home-cooked meals or intelligently-planned, home-packed convenience foods? (I coach clients on this all the time because it is a real need for our busy lifestyles)

It can really help your cause to make restaurant (or takeout) meals more of a treat, instead of a convenience solution. Which leads to my next suggestion…

Suggestion #4: Eat mindfully and with presence

I will be the first to point out that hyperpalatable food is enjoyable food. It’s not “bad food.” It can be transformative to allow yourself to eat foods that you think of as “off-limits” or “triggers,” but to really immerse yourself in the enjoyment and experience of eating them. Try to be fully present, without watching TV or reading or working while eating.

When we eat moderate servings of hyperpatable foods with full focus (especially if it is in the context of an overall nutritious and satisfying diet), we prove to ourselves that we are not out of control.

So order that pizza, look at it in all its glory, chew it slowly, and enjoy it absolutely without guilt!

(and check out this blog post about finding the “satisfaction point,” too)

Suggestion #5: Use principles of palatability to get yourself to eat more vegetables

(or other health-promoting foods that you don’t find attractive)

Hyperpalatability isn’t a boogey-man. Palatability, specifically, can actually be a useful tool for improving our overall diet, if we know how to be strategic.

For example, for optimal health, we’re meant to eat a lot of greens, vegetables, and fiber. Most of the clients that I work with are not eating enough of these foods when we first start working together (of course, this changes).

It can be a real mindset shift to allow yourself to use caloric and taste-enhancing additives like oil (or butter) with salt to make vegetables, greens, and fibrous foods more palatable. It can also be a step in the right direction to give yourself permission to eat carbohydrates with meals, if you’ve been enculturated that carbs will cause you to gain weight.

There is no virtue in having a fat-free or carb-free meal when you’re trying to lose weight. In fact, this will probably leave you feeling hungrier later (and more vulnerable to food cravings). It can be extremely smart to “dress up” low-calorie, health-promoting foods with some tasty mouth-feel. You can absolutely make this work within the parameters of a calorie deficit, too, especially if you do some simple measuring (like using a tablespoon for oils).

Plus, vitamins like A, E, D, and K are better absorbed in the presence of fat – in other words, you might be force-feeding yourself a massive salad with fat-free dressing, but not absorbing the actual nutrients as well as you could be.

When you use solid strategies to interact with our hyperpalatable food world (because, let’s be honest, it’s not going away), you don’t just create better outcomes for weight loss – you help yourself build a healthier relationship with food, too.

Finally, no discussion of cravings would be complete without talking about our emotions. While I don’t do a deep dive on this topic in this post, I do have other articles that speak to this issue – check out this post, for example.

As always, if you’re looking for more personalized advice about your nutrition, you can grab a free 30-minute consult with me. Click here to set it up!

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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