The truth about food addiction: 10 Highly processed foods you need to watch out for
12/01/2020 / By Skye Anderson / Comments
The truth about food addiction: 10 Highly processed foods you need to watch out for

Despite what some people might say, food addiction is NOT a myth. It is scientifically proven to be real, and some people are (unfortunately) more inclined to suffer from it than others because of their genes and how their brains are configured, says modern research.

This little glitch in their circuitry makes it so that their nerve cells easily produce dopamine, the main chemical that fires up our brain’s reward system, in the presence of (high levels of) certain food components. These components happen to be the three most unhealthy things your doctor has probably warned you about: fat, salt and sugar.

According to Dr. Judith Brisman, who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders in New York City: “Foods rich in sugar, fat, or salt can trigger the brain to produce neurochemicals such as dopamine, which allow for a feeling of calm. The desire for that physically induced feeling results in food cravings that cause people to eat even when they aren’t physically hungry.”

Brisman also says that, much like drug addiction, this urge to binge on something may start out as pleasurable, but it’ll soon turn into something bad and unhealthy for someone who’s food-addicted as he or she will stop tasting or enjoying food and just feel a craving for more.

So if you’ve ever felt that rush of pleasure after tasting something and found it difficult to put that food down, it’s not your imagination. It’s your brain’s reward center responding to a very effective stimulus. And odds are, your reaction has nothing to do with your emotional state. It’s more likely that you’re eating something formulated to elicit that exact response from you, a clever concoction of refined carbs and sugar, fatty oils and hefty amounts of sodium.

Highly processed foods can trigger food addiction

In 2015, researchers at the University of Michigan and Mount Sinai Morningside in New York looked into what kinds of food cause food addiction. They proposed that highly processed foods share certain similarities with drugs that are often abused because of the added fat and refined carbohydrates in them, which are absorbed into the body at a rapid rate.

To test their hypothesis about the addictive attributes of processed foods, they conducted two studies: the first one involving 120 undergraduates from university and the second one involving 384 participants from the community recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk.

In the first study, the researchers asked the participants to complete the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) and a forced-choice task to find out which out of 35 foods with different nutritional compositions were most likely to trigger addictive-like eating behaviors.

In the second study, they used the same 35 food choices and hierarchical linear modeling to investigate which food attributes (e.g., grams of fat) are linked to addictive-like eating behavior and how individual differences influenced this association.

The researchers found in the first study that processed foods that are rich in fat and can raise blood sugar levels (i.e., foods with a high glycemic load, such as jelly beans, candy bars and corn flakes) really quickly are associated with addictive-like eating behaviors.

In the second study, they learned that food processing, together with fat content and glycemic load, were all large, positive predictors for whether a given food could cause problematic, addictive-like eating behaviors.

“The current study provides preliminary evidence that not all foods are equally implicated in addictive-like eating behavior, and highly processed foods, which may share characteristics with drugs of abuse (e.g. high dose, rapid rate of absorption) appear to be particularly associated with food addiction,” the researchers wrote in their report.

Top 10 unhealthy foods that can get you addicted

In the above-mentioned study, the researchers explained that highly processed foods are altered in a such way as to be particularly rewarding. Food manufacturers “alter” these foods by adding large amounts of fats and refined carbohydrates (e.g., white flour and sugar) that stimulate the brain’s reward center by causing a sugar rush.

This, then, triggers addictive-like eating behaviors and is the reason why you’re more likely to binge on junk food like cookies and chips than to overeat unprocessed foods like raw vegetables and fresh fruits. Unfortunately, the more nutritious foods are, the less sugar or fat they contain per bite, so the less likely they are to get you addicted and make your brain scream for more.

That said, some people, especially those with brain reward dysfunction and impaired impulse control, are more prone to food addiction than others. This is what researchers from the University of Florida found when they reviewed scientific publications about food addiction. They also found that, contrary to popular belief, not all people who are overweight or obese suffer from food addiction. In fact, only about 24.9 percent report clinically significant symptoms of food addiction. Interestingly, around 11 percent of individuals who possess healthy weights also report the same food addiction symptoms.

So, do you need to avoid foods that are often considered addictive? According to Nicole Avena, a food addiction researcher at Mount Sinai Morningside, you should, if they truly cause you trouble. In case you’re wondering what these foods are, here are the top 10 foods commonly associated with addictive-like eating: (h/t to

  1. Pizza — The more processed and cheesier it is, the more addictive it will be, warns Avena. So instead of the usual ones you order, why not try making your own using fresh whole ingredients? A less-processed crust is infinitely better for your body than a highly processed one.
  2. Chocolate — When it comes to this beloved guilty pleasure, the darker, the better. Sweeter varieties contain more fat and added sugar than dark varieties, so if you can’t let go of chocolate, switch to bars that contain at least 70 percent cocoa.
  3. Cookies — According to Avena, it’s better to avoid store-bought cookies since they’re some of the most likely to contain addictive ingredients. Instead, try baking your own and cutting a good portion of the sugar out of the recipe. Your body will thank you for it.
  4. Potato chips — Like sugar, salt is addictive and unhealthy in large amounts. Potato chips, unfortunately, are high in salt, and they also aren’t filling, so you can keep munching on these for hours without noticing how many bags you’ve gone through. Best cut chips from your diet and look for a low-salt alternative.
  5. Ice cream — Don’t stock up on ice cream, advises Avena. But if you can’t help yourself, buy a single serving instead of a pint are a gallon. That way, when you have an ice cream craving at home, you’d be forced to go out and buy some instead of having a large amount conveniently available in your freezer. Odds are, you’ll be too lazy to go out and resist the craving.
  6. Cake — Cake is one of the hardest foods to avoid or refuse. But that’s what you need to learn how to do, says Avena. It’s a matter of limiting your exposure to it and learning how to say no when you’re offered a slice.
  7. French fries — Like chips, french fries are awfully addictive — easily one of the best finger foods on the planet! Thankfully, there are healthy versions of this that you can buy in stores. Go for fries with less added fat and sodium, or better yet, make (bake) sweet potato fries at home.
  8. Cheeseburgers — As with every food on this list, making your own version is better than anything you can get outside your kitchen. The idea, says Avena, is to get rid of as much processed parts as you can. Just look up healthy burger recipes online. You’re sure to find something healthy that will tickle your fancy but won’t cause you to overeat and won’t be punishing to your waistline.
  9. Breakfast cereal — Now this processed food is one of those that are criminally high in added sugar. If you can’t do without breakfast cereals in the morning, look for brands that contain no more than 4 grams of sugar per serving. Pay attention to labels, says Avena.
  10. Fried chicken — No, it’s not the chicken that’s unhealthy; it’s the crispy, fatty and sometimes salty breading that you’re likely to find addictive. If you can, just go for baked chicken or pick off that unhealthy breading so you don’t end up getting another two or three more pieces of that fried chicken, which you’ll regret later.

Highly processed foods can make you not want to stop eating, but it’s not so much you as it is the way they were made. Food manufacturers want you to buy a lot of their products, so they fill them up with all the addictive components your brain finds rewarding. If you don’t want to fall into that trap and become addicted to unhealthy things, avoid the highly processed foods listed above by making healthy food choices and learning how to do your own cooking at home. That way, you can control the ingredients that go into your food and keep yourself safe from food addiction.


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