What Makes Us Addicted to Certain Foods?
A fairly recent scientific observation is that in some individuals, certain foods create some of the same patterns of addiction observable in people dependent on drugs or alcohol, namely the inability to stop eating and binge-eating despite negative consequences. Food addiction is also associated with compulsivity and emotional attachment.
It has been estimated that about 20% of the general population is affected, and people suffering from obesity are even more likely to exhibit addictive eating behavior.
Even more astonishingly, neuroimaging research uncovered that people who exhibit symptoms of food addiction have identical pathological reward patterns in the brain with those suffering from substance and alcohol abuse. This is a huge problem, as overeating and resultant obesity significantly increase one’s risk of a wide variety of diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
Additionally, it has been observed that it isn’t just any food that can generate the addiction, which is why you rarely, if ever, hear of a person eating too much broccoli or cucumbers. Usually, it’s the most highly processed and unnatural foods that generate the condition. This is both good news and bad news, as this means that most of us were exposed to the culprits, but it also means that avoiding these foods can prevent the behavior completely.
But let’s be more specific and look at the results of a recent study, where researchers tried to establish which food varieties are the most and least addictive:
10 of the Most Addictive Foods
The results of the study revealed that the following foods were found to be the most addictive:
1. pizza (4.01)
2. chocolate (3.73)
3. chips (3.73)
4. cookies (3.71)
5. ice cream (3.68)
6. french fries (3.60)
7. cheeseburgers (3.51)
8. soda (not diet) (3.29)
9. cake (3.26)
10. cheese (3.22)
Note the numbers next to each food: the researchers ranked each food on a scale from 1 to 7 from least to most problematic and addictive, and each number reflects the position of each food on that scale.
It seems that foods that are the most likely to cause addiction are highly processed foods, foods that have a lot of added sugar or salt, and those that are fried. All of the foods above except for cheese are highly processed, and the researchers state that processing is the most accurate predictor of a possible addictive response. This is because highly processed foods like chocolate, chips, and ice cream are high in carbs and sugar and very easy and quick to digest, producing sugar spikes that our brain can get addicted to.
When exposed to these high-risk foods, certain areas in the brain release high amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel satisfied and satiated. Very soon, when the blood sugar level starts to fall, this feel-good effect wears off, leaving you with a feeling of craving more. Some people are more responsive to these brain hormone spikes than others, and in the course of the study, 10% of the overall 518 people invited to participate in the study were diagnosed with food addiction.
10 of the Least Addictive Foods
According to the same research, the following foods were the least likely to cause addiction:
1. cucumbers (no dip) (1.53)
2. carrots (1.60)
3. beans (no sauce) (1.63)
4. apples (1.66)
5. brown rice (no salt) (1.74)
6. broccoli (1.74)
7. bananas (1.77)
8. salmon (1.84)
9. corn (no butter or salt) (1.87)
10. strawberries (1.88)
In contrast with the previous list of highly addictive foods, none of the foods on the list above contains highly processed foods. In addition, all of these foods apart from the salmon are extremely low in fats, quite low in salt, and have a relatively low glycemic load, in stark contrast with the first list. This would suggest that these foods are much less likely to cause blood sugar spikes and the resulting dopamine reward, and thus they will not cause addictive behavior.
To conclude, you shouldn't blame your poor willpower if you can't help but indulge in these high-risk foods from time to time, as it turns out that they can, in fact, make you addicted. If you fear that this might affect your health, stay away from these and other highly processed foods and opt for wholesome foods to break the bad habit, or seek professional help if you feel like the issue is too big for you to address on your own.