First one, then two, then three, then four and hey presto the bag is empty. You don’t eat a few potato chips, even half a bag, and then seal them up and put them back in the cupboard. Once you start nibbling, you only stop when every last crumb has disappeared from your mouth. At least that’s how it is for most people. Because chips, like other fatty foods, have addictive potential. That’s a fact. But why?

The answer is the feeding formula. This is the name given to a certain composition of nutrients in food, or more precisely: the ratio of carbohydrates to fats. It is already known from experiments with animals that a certain mixture of these two components can trigger real eating sprees. The feeding formula has a similar effect on humans. Star chef Nelson Müller investigated these and other questions in the first part of a new ZDF documentary series. In “The Fat Compass. Living Well with Burgers, Chips and Margarine” the eating formula is broken down like this: If a food consists of half fat and about a third carbohydrates (or: 50:35), then this mix activates the reward center in the brain. The result: We want more and more and more of it.

It is known that fat is a flavor carrier and carbohydrates provide energy. Whether that alone accounts for the addictive potential is controversial. The rats in the experiment ate far more of the special food composition than usual, almost a third more, but when they were given potato chips there was no stopping them. The animals were just as eager to pounce on other snacks and sweets such as peanut chips and chocolate. It is assumed that in addition to the food composition, other factors also play a role, such as the consistency, the smell, but also spices such as salt.

So what can you do about chip-induced binge eating? Nelson Müller advises: “Don’t eat chips straight from the bag. It’s best to pour them into a bowl, maybe even a smaller bowl. Then the whole thing will look fuller. This way you can trick yourself into not eating too much fat .”

Müller explains in “The Fat Compass” why fat is not a bad thing per se and how you can maneuver your way through the food jungle despite temptations like burgers, chips and margarine. The episode, like the other parts “The Protein Compass” and “The Sugar Compass”, is available in the ZDFmediathek.

Sources: Spektrum, Spiegel