As Heard on Insight: ’Tis the Season to Snack

Pair of protein researchers offer simple tips to avoid overeating during the holidays

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Just as the holiday season comes around every year, so does the same dilemma: How to enjoy food with family and friends while still not packing on extra pounds from indulging in a variety of sugar-filled treats and other sweets?

An inside look at food, health and the environment, Insight airs on Thursdays at 7:44 a.m. and 5:44 p.m. on KBIA (91.3 FM) and at 8:01 a.m. and 5:01 p.m. on KMUC/MU Classical Radio (90.5 FM). Each on-air program is four minutes long.An inside look at food, health and the environment, Insight airs on Thursdays at 7:44 a.m. and 5:44 p.m. on KBIA (91.3 FM) and at 8:01 a.m. and 5:01 p.m. on KMUC/MU Classical Radio (90.5 FM). Each on-air program is four minutes long.

For two researchers at the University of Missouri, the solution starts with protein. Bongkosh Vardhanabhuti, assistant professor of food science in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, and Heather Leidy, assistant professor in the department of nutrition and exercise physiology, have spent a majority of their careers researching the benefits of protein (especially of the whey variety), but from different angles.

“We look at the benefits on the front end and Bongkosh looks at protein structure to see if there is a certain protein structure that really suits well to improve satiety (the feeling of fullness),” Leidy said, “and for us it’s taking satiety and then actually improving weight management.”

“From the food science standpoint, one goal is to develop high-satiety foods to meet the consumers’ demands,” Vardhanabhuti said.

Although their perspectives may vary, both researchers agree on some simple approaches to limiting your calorie intake by cutting down on snacking during the holiday season:

  • Begin with a protein-rich breakfast. Recommendations include Greek yogurt with some nuts or granola or a breakfast burrito with eggs and lean meat (anything with less than 5 percent fat) in a whole-wheat tortilla. Another option is just two scrambled eggs and a glass of milk. An additional option is to take lean meat, such as pork loin or lean beef, and season it like sausage or bacon, giving you the flavor but not the fat. “What we typically recommend is making sure to start your morning with a good, healthy high protein breakfast. That lends itself to actually have those reduced food cravings, so when you’re exposed to these highly palatable (tasty) foods, your drive to eat those will be less,” said Leidy, who has been conducting experiments on high-protein diets for years.
  • Eat your protein first, fiber second. When beginning a meal, go for the ham or turkey before you fill up on mashed potatoes and other fixings. “You’ll feel fuller and you’ll have a tendency to eat less of those unhealthy foods later in the meal,” Leidy said. After you’ve started to take in some protein, then look for options of fiber, which are great means of feeling fuller longer. If eating sweet potatoes, the skin on the potatoes is loaded with fiber as well as vitamins and other nutrients. Other good sources include oats, which contain the very beneficial soluble fiber of beta-glucan, and fruits, which have pectin, a great source of dietary fiber that has been shown to increase fullness.
  • Think portion size at dessert time. Go for a half piece of pie or cake. Take one cookie at every meal, not four. Your brain will secrete the same amount of rewarding dopamine as if you ate a full piece. “We ignore that sense of reward most of the time and we keep eating the whole thing, but if you’re mindful of your cues, then you’ll feel that same reward and you won’t need to eat any more,” Leidy said. “It’s OK to have dessert. Memories and thoughts of food are very important to us. We’re a very traditional society, and so it’s not that you can’t have it. It’s just that everything’s in moderation.”
  • Never go to parties on an empty stomach. Grab some protein first before you head out the door to avoid unmindful snacking later in the day or evening.

Two approaches, one goal

Although Vardhanabhuti and Leidy arrived on the MU campus around the same time in 2010, they did not start collaborating on research until recent years. In October, they published an academic paper in the journal Nutrients — along with Vardhanabhuti’s graduate student Sha Zhang — that looked at two food forms of whey protein (which are found naturally in dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese) in relation to appetite control: beverages versus gels.

“Whey is by default the gold standard protein,” said Leidy noting that it is not only a strong source for amino acids, in particularly leucine, which is the key ingredient for the body to build muscle — making it a must for both athletes of all kinds as part of post-exercise routines or just regular folks trying to manage their weight. “Consumers have a very strong drive to seek out protein foods. It’s pretty consistent in any of the focus groups that people want more protein.”

In the end, all protein snacks provided satiety to participants. However, a gel substance that Vardhanabhuti created that has been described as having the texture that is slightly chewier than “finger JELL-O” ended up having slightly higher satiety. The question remains if they were full because of the gels themselves or because of the overall unpleasant taste.

Going forward, the two researchers would like to do a second phase of the study, but with better-tasting gels that would not comprise the overall feeling of pleasure for the food, or palatability, when the protein structures themselves are manipulated.

“Although it works in the science, it doesn’t translate into a practical aspect,” Leidy said. “If we actually marketed this in a product people are not going to go out and consume this because it doesn’t taste good even though it’s filling, and so the next step is to develop this higher-protein gels that not only lead to enhanced satiety but also taste good so that people will want to consume them on a daily basis.”

Then again, perhaps they could be marketed as the perfect way to stay slim these days.

“So if you want somebody not to eat a lot during the holiday season, they should eat our gels,” Leidy said with a laugh.