There are certain foods that are so difficult to resist that we often refer to them as “addictive”. However, addictive is, in many cases, more than just a figure of speech. Some foods actually trigger physical biochemical responses in the brain similar to those produced by narcotics.
Foods that cause addition typically contain significant amounts of sugar, salt and fat or even a combination of them, which is why it's highly unlikely to feel addicted to things like carrots or celery.
Addictive foods can cause some of the same symptoms as substance addiction: compulsion to eat, tolerance that requires consuming larger quantities of food in order to get the same effect and even withdrawal symptoms. Wondering which are the foods with the highest addictive potential? Here are some of them:
Addictive Snack: Potato Chips
There's a reason why it's next to impossible to eat just one. The chips' high fat and salt content activate the reward center of the brain, triggering the pleasure response and make it hard to control and curb consumption. A study published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” showed that receptors in our mouths trigger a powerful addiction-type mechanism in our guts which actually reinforce fat eating. Other studies done on rats showed the reward center was much more active when the rats ate chips compared to other salty snacks.
Addictive Carbs: White Bread/Pasta
Eating simple carbohydrates such as the ones found in pasta, white bread or baked goods makes the same pleasure centers of the brain light up consuming drugs like cocaine and heroin, causing dopamine levels to spike and then deplete which fuels addiction. However, healthier substitutes which have a lower glycemic index such as spelt pasta cooked al dente can be a good alternative.
Is Chocolate Addictive?
While dark chocolate has been shown to have certain health benefits, chocolate has potentially addictive qualities due to the alkaloids found in it which are quite similar to those found in alcohol. Moreover, chocolate triggers the serotonin response which causes both psychological and physiological responses. While the quantities of these addictive compounds is fairly small, chocolate is undeniably one of the foods that can cause addiction.
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Addictive 'Diet' Foods: Non-fat, Low-fat or Sugar-free
Foods carrying one of these labels tend to be an attractive options as they are perceived as guilt-free indulgences. However, to make up for the loss in flavor the proportion of other ingredients has to be increased to make these foods palatable. Many low fat foods, for instance have increased amounts of sodium for added flavor, which means they aren't really healthier than other alternatives. Furthermore, it's extremely easy to overeat such foods believing that they are a healthier choice.
Causes of Junk Food Addiction
A rather unsurprising addition to the list of potentially addictive foods, fast foods are high in fat, salt and refined carbohydrates and causing the blood sugar levels to spike and and then drop rapidly, which causes cravings for more food, forming a vicious circle. Moreover, with junk food addiction there's also the psychological component of convenience and the notion of bargains which helps heighten the feeling of deprivation and fuels the desire to consume them.
Addictive Ingredient: Sugar
While sugar is rarely eaten on its own, it's still one of the most addictive food ingredients, being considered as addictive as cocaine if not even more so. A research published back in 2007 showed that 94% rats that were offered a choice between cocaine and sugar water chose sugar, even if they were previously addicted to cocaine, switching their preference to sugar once it was offered as a choice. These findings illustrate the need of cutting back on sugar and paying attention to the labels to be able to choose foods that contain less sugar.
While food addiction is not as straightforward as other types of addictions, the growing body of research highlights importance of moderation in consuming these highly palatable foods in order to minimize the risk of addiction and the potential of serious health problems down the road.