A new study from UVA researchers published in January’s Current Biology suggests that consuming high-fat and energy-dense foods not only risks putting too many calories in our diet but also may increase the tendency to snack outside of regular meal times.

Ali Güler, associate professor of biology at UVA, served as corresponding author for the study, which was conducted in mice and examined how an energy-dense diet mimicking the kind of fat- and sugar-rich foods many people consume today affected the eating behavior of the mice. In the wild, mice are typically nocturnal feeders; in the study, mice that were fed the kind of diet they would normally encounter in the wild maintained normal patterns of eating, rest and activity. But mice fed a diet rich in fat not only ate more food, they also ate more frequently, outside of their normal consumption times.

In examining the relationship between diet and eating frequency, the researchers found evidence indicating that the part of the brain that experiences pleasure when consuming energy-dense foods affects the body’s circadian rhythms—or the internal clock that helps regulate daily patterns of activities—which drives the off-schedule eating. Weight gain, then, might be a result not only of excess calories consumed but also the timing of when calories are consumed. 

“Diets rich in fat not only increase food consumption but also alter feeding patterns,” the authors write, adding that “disruption in feeding rhythms induces weight gain independent of overconsumption.”