Last Update: July 25, 2023
It’s a true testament of willpower, the moment you come face-to-face with a pint of ice cream. Before you know it, there’s nothing but an empty carton and a familiar bloated feeling. But is a lack of willpower really what causes us to eat crave-inducing foods past the point of fullness, or is there more to it?
A recent study revealing the top 10 most addicting foods says the chart-toppers are designed specifically to give eaters instant gratification. Meaning: It’s easy to consume too much, and harder to tell when you’re full.
Conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Michigan and Columbia University’s New York Obesity Research Center, the study also found that certain foods share several of the same addictive traits as commonly abused drugs! Yikes.
To assess which foods have addictive traits, the team used the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), a 25-point questionnaire that measures food addiction in individuals. Researchers asked a group of 120 undergraduates at University of Michigan and a group of nearly 400 adults about 35 types of foods ranging from pizza to broccoli.
Here’s what came out on top:
5. Ice Cream
6. French Fries
8. Non-Diet Soda
Not so shocking. Yes, it’s easy to go for another slice of pizza, snacks or scoop of ice cream. After all, they taste good. But what is it, specifically, that makes them “addictive”?
“Addictive substances are rarely in their natural state, but have been altered or processed in a manner that increases their abuse potential,” states the study. Similar to how grapes are processed into wine or poppies into opium––there is a higher concentration of the addictive agent. Foods that have a significant amount of added refined sugar, fat, or salt can cause a kind of food euphoria, making it much easier to over-consume.
“When foods are processed in such a way to have artificially high levels of sugar and fat, they are very pleasurable and rewarding,” says study author Dr. Nicole Avena, who conducts research on addiction, diet, and nutrition at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City.
“These foods make your blood sugar spike more quickly, compared to foods with a lower glycemic load, because they are absorbed into the bloodstream at a faster rate,” says Avena.
It makes sense. According to another study, a variety of foods (sugar, saccharine, and corn oil) can activate areas of the brain that process behavior reinforcement. If you’ve ever opened a bag of chips and found yourself staring at the bottom in the same sitting, you’ve experienced the addictive effects of processed food.
“In animals, it seems as though sugar is the most addictive macronutrient,” says Avena. “Signs of addiction include bingeing, tolerance, and withdrawal.”
As for putting an end to the cycle, Avena believes a lot of people don’t have as much control over what they eat because they often don’t realize the food they’re eating is bad for them. “A lot of people aren’t correctly informed and may think they are eating ‘healthy,’ when in reality they are not.”
Avena recommends taking a look at your diet as a whole and reading labels carefully. (Here’s a helpful guide on how to read a label for its nutritional content.) She also suggests people wean themselves off processed foods rather than going cold turkey, in order to have better control over cravings. “Start with foods that are obviously highly processed [like] candy, cakes, chips, and beverages [like soda],” she says.
In other news: broccoli fell to the bottom of the list as one of the least addictive foods. Sigh. This recipe, however, may help bump it up a notch or two.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho
In addition to Thrive Market, Megan has written copy for brands like Armani, Alexis Bittar, Nine West, Equinox, Olay, and (even) Jim Beam. Her health, beauty, and lifestyle coverage has been featured in Refinery29, Black Book, i-d, and others. After moving from New York, she found her home in Santa Monica, where she lives with her dog and fiance.
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