You’ve probably heard people say that they’re “addicted” to certain food and can’t stay away from it. More often than not, that food is high in sugar or processed carbs – but are they really “addicted?” Enjoying food to the point that you want to keep eating it differs from true addiction in the medical sense. True food addiction is a physical dependence on certain types of food or dietary components. Food addiction is more than a lack of willpower. It’s a physiological drive to compulsively eat certain foods. According to Harvard Health publications, addiction is characterized by:
· Strong cravings for the item of addiction
· Inability to control its use
· Continuing to use it despite adverse consequences
Could this also apply to foods as it does to tobacco or drugs? Scientists have traced addiction, including food addiction, to specific areas of the brain. Using imaging studies, researchers discovered that certain foods light up the “pleasure” centers in the brain. These so-called pleasure centers are bundles of nerve cells in a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. When you flood the nucleus accumbens of the brain with a stimulating food, the nerve cells release dopamine, a brain chemical linked with pleasure. If you keep eating foods that boost the release of dopamine, the nucleus accumbens communicates with other areas of the brain, including ones involved in motivation, and the desire to eat that food turns into food-seeking behavior. At this point, you start to feel an overwhelming drive to eat that food or foods.
Unfortunately, your brain gradually becomes desensitized to the dopamine release that comes from eating addictive food. As you become desensitized, you start to eat more and more of the addictive food to trigger even greater dopamine release, as you want that feeling of reward and pleasure. This is called tolerance and you see it with heroin addiction too. A person addicted to heroin needs more of the drug over time to get the same pleasurable sensations and feelings of reward. It’s easy to see how being under stress worsens food addiction. When you’re stressed out, you need the release of dopamine more to feel better.
The Environment We Live In Makes Food Addiction Even Easier
The question is why some people can eat food that stimulates dopamine release and not become addicted while another person falls into a cycle of intense cravings for food. Everyone’s brain works a bit differently, but it may have to do with how strongly the dopamine response to a specific food is and how often you reinforce the response by eating that food. Food manufacturers don’t make it easier. Food scientists work around the clock developing synthetic flavorings that light up dopamine receptors in the brain. Then they add salt, sugar, and fat to make the food even more irresistible. These foods hijack your taste buds and your dopamine receptors and directly fuel food addiction. What’s more, natural foods without synthetic flavorings become less rewarding by comparison. It’s hard to compete with engineered flavorings.
Foods with the most addictive potential are those high in sugar, salt, or fat. Notice that many addictive foods combine two of these components. For example, French fries are high in fat and salt. Ice cream blends sugar and fat. Some processed foods combine all three components for the ultimate in culinary stimulation.
Processed carbohydrates are especially problematic. In one study, 12 obese men were divided into two groups. Both drank a milkshake that contained the same number of calories. The only difference was the shake one group drank was made of high-glycemic carbohydrates. High-glycemic carbs cause a rapid rise and drop in blood sugar. The second group drank a milkshake composed of low-glycemic or slowly absorbed carbohydrates. In response, the latter group experienced a flood of dopamine release and developed intense hunger hours later while the first group did not. So, eliminating high-glycemic carbs from your diet may reduce hunger and the potential of developing strong cravings and addiction.
What Are the Most Addictive Foods?
Researchers at the University of Michigan asked more than 500 individuals to rate a list of 35 foods on a scale from 1 to 7 based on how likely each food was to cause cravings for them. The results corresponded closely with what research shows lights up dopamine receptors – high-glycemic carbs, foods high in fat or salt, and those with an abundance of sugar. Pizza topped the list but chocolate and potato chips were a close second. Also on the list were ice cream, cookies, French fries, soft drinks, cake, popcorn, dinner rolls, breakfast cereal, gummy candies, and muffins. Foods low in sugar but high in fat also made the list – cheese, bacon, steak, and fried chicken.
What foods were least likely to be addictive? This list was dominated by whole, unprocessed foods. The top two items were cucumbers and carrots followed by other plant-based options, like apples, broccoli, beans, strawberries, bananas, corn, and nuts. Eggs, chicken breast, and salmon also scored as unlikely to be addictive. These are foods that are most satiating as well. Interestingly, crackers and granola bars made the list, despite the fact that some granola bars are high in sugar.
How to Break the Cycle of Addiction
True food addiction can be difficult to break and it takes time. Start by replacing trigger foods with nutrient-dense whole foods. If you crave sugary treats, substitute fruit for the less healthy item you’re craving. If you crave potato chips or French fries, switch to oven-baked vegetable fries and chips made from colorful veggies. A fruit and vegetable smoothie or low-sugar yogurt is a good substitute for ice cream.
As you add healthier fare to your diet, your taste buds should, over time, yearn less for processed foods and foods with added sugar, fat, and salt. In fact, you may eventually find foods you once craved taste sickeningly sweet, once you’ve transitioned to whole foods.
It’s also important to understand the link between stress, emotional triggers, and food addiction. Sometimes we use comfort foods to help deal with stress. Learn to recognize when you’re doing that. Have a substitute activity that provides you gratification that doesn’t involve eating. Also, find strategies to better deal with stress, whether it be meditation, yoga, or a high-intensity workout. Yes, there is evidence that certain foods are addictive and overcoming it takes lifestyle changes and patience.
Harvard Health Publications. “How Addiction Hijacks the Brain”
Authority Nutrition. “The 18 Most Addictive Foods (And the 17 Least Addictive)”
Psychology Today. “Does Food Addiction Really Exist?”
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