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Trouble Stopping When You Snack? Science Finally Knows Why

Last Update: September 29, 2022

You never forget your first time. You tell yourself, “That won’t be me. I would never do that. I’m not that type of person.” And then, before you know it…you are. You’ve become the  person that polishes off an entire family-size bag of sour cream and onion chips in one sitting.

Why does this happen? You’re not lacking in self-control when it comes to everything else in your life, but the minute you hear the crinkle of that bag opening you turn into a wild, chip-eating animal.

Food Addiction and Your Brain

Well, science is finally offering up an explanation for your uncontrollable cravings, and the answer lies in the sweet, fatty, processed foods our brains (and mouths) are after. A recent study conducted by the University of Michigan proves what we’ve been suspicious of all along: Highly processed foods trigger the addiction center in our brains.

Refined Carbs, Sugar and Fats act like Drugs

Scientists used processed foods that were high in refined carbohydrates—like white flour and sugar—and added fats in their study, and noticed that some of the subjects met the criteria for substance dependence and triggered an addictive response. (It’s still unclear why some people have more of a neurological response than others to the “reward factor” and subsequent dependence on processed food.)

Other research also suggests foods that are higher in fat and refined carbohydrates are more likely to be consumed in larger portions (ahem, like when you hoover the whole bag of chips) and have a more rapid rate of absorption into the body, mimicking the characteristics of addictive drugs. Sugar high, anybody?

Oreo’s Effect Your Brain like Cocaine

Kind of scary to think that your sleeve of Oreos has the same addictive effect on your brain as cocaine, but the good news is that other foods tested—including salmon and brown rice—didn’t. That explains why we don’t usually cram a whole pound of veggies in one sitting, and also why some people habitually break their diets to eat not-so-healthy food.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure why junky foods light up your brain’s pleasure center the same way that addictive drugs do, but they do believe it has something to do with processed sugar and fat that hits your body hard and fast. For example, a cookie that’s high in fat and refined sugar will spike your blood sugar levels quickly but you’ll crash almost immediately. Instant gratification, sure. But replace that cookie with a scoop of nut butter and you’ll have sustained energy and consistent blood sugar levels,  thanks to healthy fats and fiber.

There’s a Reason They Call It Junk Food

It’s not rocket science: Processed junk is just that—junk. Keep your cupboards stocked with snacks made with ingredients you recognize, and avoid choices packed with sugar and fat. Because as science is discovering, your first bite of those unhealthy snacks probably won’t be your last.

Photo credit: Stocksy

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Michelle Pellizzon

Certified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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