Mac and cheese: that sinful, carb-loaded bowl of comfort food that should only be consumed sparingly. Or at least that's how we used to feel about it. Because now we feel zero guilt after reading a recent study that basically called mac and cheese the "perfect food."
Last week, a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found that when fat and carbs are combined in one single food, they're more rewarding than foods that have just one of the two aforementioned energy sources. And do you know what has both? A big, heaping bowl of ooey-gooey mac and cheese.
According to the study, fatty foods — like cheese — trigger a pathway of signals to reward centers in the brain, while carbohydrate-loaded foods — like pasta — take another route. So when combined, our brains light up like crazy. “Our study shows that when the signals are combined they make foods more reinforcing," Dr. Dana Small, professor of psychiatry at Yale and senior author of the paper, told YaleNews.
As part of the study, 56 participants rated a collection of pictures of snacks — all of which fell into one of three categories: fat, carbohydrate or a combination of the two — for "liking, familiarity, estimated energy density and total calories." Participants then fasted, and, once they arrived at the lab, were fed breakfast. After three hours, they were asked to bid for the snacks they previously rated — all the while hooked up to an fMRI scanner, which showed what was happening in their brains as they bid. In the end, the study found that not only did the reward centers of the brain fire up more for snacks in the fats-plus-carbs category, but participants were also willing to pay more for said snacks.
Now, the study didn't specifically call out mac and cheese. But, as Popular Science pointed out first, this particular popular meal — as well as ice cream and french fries — fit the bill. Cheese is low in carbs, but high in fat, while pasta is a complex carbohydrate, but low in fat. Combine the two, and — voilà! — the ideal meal.
One thing to note about this study, though, is something Small highlighted: Foods high in fat and carbohydrate do not exist in nature — except for one: breast milk, which happens to contain lots of fats and carbs — and it makes sense considering infants must to learn to suckle in order to survive.
In the end, though, don't take this study to mean that you should go buck wild with the mac and cheese and french fries.
"In the modern food environment that is rife with processed foods high in fat and carbohydrate like donuts, French fries, chocolate bars, and potato chips, this reward potentiation may backfire to promote overeating and obesity," Small told YaleNews.
In all, though, let's all give science a big round of applause for telling us what we always knew: Mac and cheese is truly perfect.