From both the theoretical and practical standpoints, the matter is settled: Flexible dieting works. If you’re hitting appropriate macronutrient targets and training properly, you can make progress toward your body composition goals using a wide variety of food sources. The rigid mindset of only chicken, broccoli, and sweet potatoes is a thing of the past.

Nonetheless, food selection can still be a tremendously valuable tool in your arsenal, whether you’re aiming to gain muscle or lose fat. Different foods can have different effects on satiety (how full you feel), and you may also find certain foods that habitually trigger you to overeat. Just because a wide variety of foods can be fit into your macros, doesn’t mean that food selection is irrelevant.

 

Satiety

Satiety refers to how full or satisfied you feel in response to eating, and is a huge consideration for food choice. In 1995, Holt et al. conducted a study [1] in which they quantified the satiety index of 38 different foods, separated into six categories (fruits, bakery products, snack foods, carbohydrate-rich foods, protein-rich foods, and breakfast cereals). Isoenergetic servings (meaning that every serving had the same number of calories) of the foods were given to groups of 11-13 participants, who then rated their satiety every 15 minutes for two hours following consumption. After those two hours, subjects were allowed to eat as much as they wanted from a standard range of foods and beverages.

Holt’s full paper is a great reference for comparing the satiety rating of particular foods and how they relate to subsequent caloric intake, but the study also shows some interesting, generalizable characteristics of satiating foods. For a given caloric content, satiety was higher in foods which had greater weight per serving, more protein, more fiber, and less fat. Scores were also higher for foods that were less palatable, meaning they didn’t taste particularly great.

This paper is important for dieters because it shows fairly conclusively that your fullness and satisfaction after a meal is influenced by the foods selected, not just the caloric content. However, people often overlook the fact that this paper can be applied in the other direction for individuals that are trying to gain weight. If bulking is the goal, then exclusively selecting highly satiating foods is going to leave you feeling full, bloated, and without an appetite. In that context, opting for some low-satiety and highly palatable foods would be the ideal approach.

 

Trigger foods

While the satiety index is one important factor of food selection, we shouldn’t ignore the concept of “trigger foods.” This concept refers to foods which trigger an individual to overeat, and we’ve all got them. There is no doubt that food is highly linked to our emotions and sensations of pleasure, and that link is a two-way street; food influences our emotions, and our emotions influence our food behaviors. When we eat a particularly palatable food, dopamine is produced and the reward and pleasure centers in the brain are activated [2]. Furthermore, we are inclined to choose more palatable (and by extension, more calorically dense) foods when we are stressed, anxious, or depressed [2]. This is particularly troublesome in dieters, as the combination of caloric restriction and palatable food intake is conducive to binge eating episodes [3]. For instance, calorie-restricted rodents eat reasonably normally when exposed to their typical chow; however, if they are presented with even a small bit of palatable food, they will proceed to binge eat their chow [4].

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