Allow award-winning food writer Mark Schatzker, author of The End of Craving, to declare: Certain foods may be deceiving your brain chemistry. He calls them "brain-fooling foods," as they're meant to trick your appetite by distracting you with the rich flavors you crave without the calories—a lofty promise that tends to backfire, but we'll get into that later.
What's more, they're not always easy to spot. "You can pick up some of them, but not always all of them, by looking at the ingredient panel," he shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. Below, Schatzker explains how to identify these fraudulent foods, as well as what they're actually doing to your brain.
First, how can foods "fool" your brain?
Here's the thing: Your brain sends signals to the rest of your body when you consume different foods, and it doesn't like to be surprised. "You don't use the same metabolic processes to digest protein as you might for fat or as you might for carbohydrates," Schatzker says. "So as you taste food, the brain is saying, 'OK, this is what's coming in.'"
And from an evolutionary standpoint, our brains are hardwired to associate sweeter, starchier, or fattier tastes with more calories. "If a fruit tastes sweeter, it has more calories. If a piece of meat tastes richer and fattier, it has more calories," Schatzker adds. This credible relationship between flavors and calories is a significant part of what makes your brain feel satisfied. So when you eat food that contains artificial sweeteners or thickeners to mimic that sensorial experience, it tastes like it has more calories than it actually does (that's the whole point of low-calorie, ultraprocessed foods). That's the "brain-fooling" part of the equation, says Schatzker.
But your brain cannot be fooled for long: "It does this second level of analysis," he says. "It goes: 'I thought I was getting calories that tasted sweet or rich and creamy, and I didn't get the calories." And what does the brain do when that happens? It makes us want to eat more.
Allow him to explain further: "The brain is programmed by evolution to avoid a low. So if these sensory cues for nutrition become uncertain, the brain responds by saying, 'I better get more calories, because I just can't be sure, and I don't want to get ripped off.'"
4 brain-fooling foods.
With that said, any food that tastes out of sync with its actual nutrition is what Schatzker considers a brain-fooling food. "There's all kinds of things we do to food that change the relationship between how it tastes and its nutritional payload," he says. He offers a few examples below:
- Flavorings: In his 2015 title, The Dorito Effect, Schatzker discusses how over the last several decades, American agriculture has focused primarily on volume and appearance—think of giant, perfectly red tomatoes you might see in grocery stores today. But the flavors are blander because of these harsher agricultural methods, and so we rely on lab-derived flavorings to give us that same pleasant experience. You can learn a bit more by watching Schatzker's short clip here.
- Artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners provide that sugary taste without the calories, but as Schatzker notes, they don't satisfy your brain for long. Plus, these sweeteners have issues with gut health as well: "Just because something is noncaloric doesn't mean it is free of metabolic influence," says integrative dietitian Ali Miller, R.D., about artificial sweeteners. "The taste of sweet impacts GLP-1 receptors on the tongue, which enhances insulin release—this is not ideal," as it can drive blood sugar drops.
- Fat replacers: As the name suggests, fat replacers resemble the taste and feel of traditional fats (like oils and butter) while keeping the calorie count down. Olestra is a famous example, which was approved by the FDA in 1996 but is banned in other places like the U.K. "They are in a lot of foods, and nobody knows about them," says Schatzker.
- Thickeners & emulsifiers: These additives mainly change the texture of foods, but that creaminess can ultimately affect the flavor experience as well. "Things like modified starches, thickeners, or emulsifiers aren't necessarily used for some perceived health advantage at a low calorie count. They just make ultraprocessed food last longer or not separate," Schatzker adds. But again, this manipulation can alter how your brain reacts to the eating experience and nutritional payload.
Essentially, plenty of ultra-processed foods can attempt to fool your brain—but according to Schatzker, they don't actually succeed, and you may wind up eating even more to try and compensate. So what's the solution here? "Speak to [your brain] on its own level and realize that it doesn't like being fooled," says Schatzker. "It wants to get what it wants. It likes to be able to predict."