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Processed Food Might Actually Be Addictive

Eating too much is not necessarily an addiction, but there are some similarities. Let's take a step back, and look at which organ is really responsible for overeating - and it's not your stomach. It's your brain.

Processed Food Might Actually Be Addictive


No matter how much health propaganda (have you seen the ads for pistachios and avocados?), and no matter how many clothing lines begin carrying workout clothes - rates of overweight and obese Americans are climbing. In fact, projections of current number predict that 85% of us will be overweight or obese in 15 more years. It's a conundrum that has scientists still trying to put a finger on how we can know so much about how to reach a healthy weight, and yet fewer and fewer of us do.

Can Food Be Addictive?

Eating too much is not necessarily an addiction, but there are some similarities. Let's take a step back, and look at which organ is really responsible for overeating - and it's not your stomach. It's your brain.

Your brain is made up of a variety of signaling areas, and one of them is known the 'reward' center. This is the part of the brain that is stimulated by pleasurable things, such as a warm hug or an ice cream sundae.

Studies Point to Yes

A recent study that looked at food addiction and overeating tried to uncover what foods might be addictive. And it's no surprise what they found.

The researchers investigated 4 categories of food. 1) Foods high in fat and refined carbohydrates or sugar (like chocolate, French fries, pizza), 2) Foods high in fat only (like cheese, bacon), 3) Foods high refined carbohydrates and sugar only (like soda or pretzels), and 4) Foods that were low in fat and refined carbohydrates or sugar (like broccoli, chicken).

After showing individuals pictures of these different kinds of foods and investigating addictive tendencies -such as a feeling needing to eat more of a certain food in order to reduce negative emotions or increase pleasure-the researchers measured the individuals responses.

Which Foods are Most Addictive?

What they found is not surprising - foods in the first category-those that were high in both fat and carbohydrates - were the most addictive. As it turns out these foods are also the foods that are the most processed. This begs the question, are processed foods addictive? And why doesn't broccoli fall into category of addicting foods?

The authors of this study give the example that the processing of a cocoa leaf (which is harmless in small quantities) turns it into cocaine, a very addictive substance. And processing a grape turns it into wine, and poppies can be refined into opium. They argue that the same thing is happening within our food supply. In a natural state, there are foods that are higher in sugar or refined carbohydrates (fruits, potato), or foods that are higher in fat (nuts, avocado), but foods that are high in both fat and refined carbohydrates or sugar are rarely found in foods in their natural state.

Within our modern food supply, highly processed foods are constantly being developed that contain elevated amounts of both of these reward-center triggering nutrients - such as cake, pizza, and doughnuts.

In terms of addiction, an increased potency or a concentrated dose of an agent increases the potential of abusing that substance. A rapid-delivery system, such as injection or snorting, also increases the likelihood of abuse. With highly processed foods the ingredients that slow absorption-such as natural fibers, proteins, and enzyme inhibitors-are removed, causing a spike in blood sugar due to the rapid absorption and delivery. A spike in glucose levels is harmful in many ways, but when it comes to addiction - a spike in blood glucose activates areas of the brain that linked with addiction.

Sugar appears to be the primary culprit when it comes to addictive foods. In animal studies removing sugar from the diet causes the animal to experience symptoms of withdrawal, such as teeth chattering, anxiety, and aggression. A sucrose binge produces a repeated increase of dopamine, which is characteristic of addictive substances, suggesting that sugar is likely a highly addictive agent. However, animals that binge on sugar don't actually gain body weight - so fat is a necessary part in solving the obesity epidemic, and foods that contain both of these ingredients play a role in the weight gain associated with food addiction.

Overall, this means that addictive foods likely to cause weight gain are the ones that are high in sugar/simple carbohydrates plus fat. Foods that are addictive include pizza, pasta with cream sauce, chocolate, ice cream, French fries, cookies, chips, cake, buttered popcorn, fried chicken, and cheeseburgers.

Addictive foods can be harmful in more ways that just body weight, they also cause individuals to give up important social and recreational activities because of their preference for addictive foods.

Erica M. Schulte, Nicole M. Avena, Ashley N. Gearhardt. Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load. February 18, 2015. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117959.

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