Up to one-fifth of Americans may suffer from eating behaviors that could be classified as a food addiction. Among those who are obese, the percentage can be much higher. (1)
Food addiction is a relatively new term and has not yet gained full recognition as a clinical disorder, but studies are ongoing to determine the nature of the syndrome, as well as how the number of people are affected.
Much like the manner in which drug addicts cannot control their use of drugs, food addicts are unable to control their consumption of certain foods, leading to overeating, weight gain, and various health issues, including obesity. (2, 3)
The tool currently accepted as the standard for assessing food addiction was developed at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
The assessment protocol of the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) has been used in more than 25 studies by researchers working on establishing a baseline for understanding and treating the disorder. (4)
Surveys indicate the most common foods that trigger addictive-like behavior are processed foods that are high in sugar, fat, or both.
We’ll take a look here at the results from a study done with more than 500 participants at the University of Michigan, which pinpoints the 12 foods most likely to trigger addictive behavior. (5)
Have You Had Control Issues with These Foods?
Using the YFAS, researchers provided survey participants with a list of 35 foods, some of which were whole foods, while others were processed.
Test subjects were asked to rate foods on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing a status of “not addictive at all,” and 7 designating “highly addictive foods” that cause problems with control.
Data gathered showed that between 7% and 10% of the respondents classified as suffering from food addiction.
Even more disturbing is this: a full 92% of respondents indicated they experienced addictive-like behavior with certain foods; while they repeatedly felt they wanted to and “should” stop eating these foods, they were not able to.
Here are the top twelve foods on the list, along with the average number on the YFAS scale as rated by survey respondents:
- Pizza – 4.01
- Chocolate – 3.73
- Chips – 3.73
- Cookies – 3.71
- Ice cream – 3.68
- French fries – 3.60
- Cheeseburgers – 3.50
- Soda (sugar-sweetened) – 3.29
- Cake – 3.26
- Cheese – 3.22
- Bacon – 3.03
- Fried chicken – 2.97
If you’ve ever experienced uncontrollable urges to eat these foods beyond reasonable amounts, you’re not alone.
All foods on the list are made with refined and highly processed ingredients; some are high in both sugar and fat, while others are heavy on one of those ingredients. All are high-calorie foods.
For contrast, here’s the list of foods respondents found least problematic in regard to addictive behavior:
- Cucumbers – 1.53
- Carrots – 1.60
- Beans (without sauce) – 1.63
- Apples – 1.66
- Brown rice – 1.74
- Broccoli – 1.74
- Bananas – 1.77
- Salmon – 1.84
- Corn (without salt or butter) – 1.87
- Strawberries – 1.88
- Granola bar – 1.93
- Water – 1.94
With the exception of the granola bar, all these foods are single-ingredient, whole and natural; the only drink on the least addictive food list is water.
None of these foods are high in calories or fat.
This is key, because there are biochemical reasons why certain individuals lose control and overeat particular foods.
What Happens When Food is “Too Good”
If you’ve ever noticed that processed foods taste super-good, you’ll understand the term “hyper-palatable.” Teams of skilled scientists are employed by food manufacturers to make certain their products appeal strongly to the taste buds, ensuring repeat customers and good profits.
Processed foods are usually high in calories, and often cause major fluctuations in blood sugar levels; these two circumstances are known to set off food cravings.
But the biggest and most influential player in the addiction game is the human brain.
In comparison to what happens in the brain when we eat whole and natural foods, processed foods set off reactions that release large quantities of feel-good chemicals; these flood the system, lighting up the brain’s reward center in a much more powerful way than natural foods do. (9, 10, 11)
And then the brain wants more rewards; and more yet. This is how cravings for hyper-rewarding foods can turn into a cycle that lands some people in behavioral patterns that are considered addictive. (12, 13)
Researchers have found that lab animals allowed to choose between processed foods high in fat/sugar and calories will stop eating less flavorful whole foods, concentrating solely on the foods that set off similar chemical reactions to what humans experience as described above. (14)
Rats were willing to risk enduring severe and painful electrical shocks in order to keep feeding at the trough containing “hyper-palatable” foods, disturbingly similar to the way animals behaved during experiments with cocaine.
In another study, rats preferred sugar-sweetened water to regular water that was accompanied by an intravenous dose of cocaine. (15)
Although some have been convinced that overeating always indicates a clear lack of willpower, science is finding otherwise.
In certain cases, obesity may be the result of food addictions that trigger uncontrollable urges; ongoing research will provide more information and possibly lead to treatment options that are currently not available.
Basing your diet on whole, natural foods that release appropriate amounts of feel-good chemicals when consumed may take on a different flavor in view of the information provided in these new studies.
For those who have trouble with control when consuming hyper-rewarding foods, just knowing that there’s a biochemical reason for reactions may be a positive influence in dietary choices.
Summary: Addictive-like eating behavior and food addiction are serious problems that are very real in today’s processed food-dominated culture. Certain foods are much more likely to set off undesirable reactions that result in a lack of control.