Do you wake up every morning committed to eating healthy so you can lose body fat?
Do you think, not tonight—no chocolate (or pizza, ice cream, or chips) tonight?
You promise yourself that you’ll have a lovely green salad with colorful veggies and a nice piece of salmon or steak with tomatoes and artichokes. But then, every afternoon, does that intense longing for pizza or ice cream come over you?
You rationalize just a bite or two—after all, aren’t we always told that moderation is a virtue and a weight loss tool?
But then, all control, commitments and good intentions are eclipsed as you’re mind goes blank with the deliciousness as you finish the entire container of Ben and Jerry’s, that package of Godiva, or box of pizza.
Congratulations. You’ve been sucked in by the most addictive foods on the planet.
Emerging science shows that food addiction is a real thing that not only leads you to eat your weight in almond butter, but also causes genuine changes to the brain in the same way as alcohol and drug addiction. This makes pathological eating a little more complicated than lack of self-control and will power.
Fortunately, a new study compiled a list of the most addicting foods and analyzed them to identify the factors that contribute to obsessive eating. A key discovery was that without exposure to an addictive food, a person vulnerable to bingeing would not develop an addiction.
Your first line of defense is to avoid “trigger” foods. The second is to have healthy, satisfying foods you can rely on instead. The following is a quick rundown of how food addiction functions with a list of the top ten most addicting foods and ten healthy, satisfying substitutes to save you.
How Food Addiction Works
Studies into the neurophysiology of addiction show that addictive substances have the following three traits:
1) They are rarely in their natural state. Rather, they have been altered or processed in some way that increase their abuse potential. For example, grapes are processed into wine and poppies are processed into opium. Something similar is occurring within our food supply with the process of intense refinement that creates our most addictive foods.
For example, there are foods that naturally contain either sugar, such as fruit or grains, or fat, such as nuts or seeds. Interestingly, sugar and fat rarely occur in the same food naturally. Many of the most palatable processed foods have been engineered to contain large quantities of both—and often in a highly refined state (such as hydrogenated vegetable oil or high fructose corn syrup).
2) They provide a higher concentration of the additive agent than occurs in nature. This increased potency raises the abuse potential.
For example, water has little, if any abuse potential, whereas beer, which contains 5 percent alcohol, is more likely to be abused. In contrast, hard liquor contains a higher dose of alcohol (between 20 and 75 percent) and has a higher addictive potential than beer.
Something similar occurs with processed foods. The addition of “man-made” fat and refined carbs increases the “dose” of these ingredients beyond what one might find in whole foods, such as fruit or nuts.
3) They are altered to increase the rate at which the addictive agent is absorbed into the bloodstream. A chewed coca leaf has little addictive potential. Once it is processed into a concentrated dose with rapid delivery into the system, it becomes cocaine, which is highly addictive.
Compared to naturally occurring foods, highly processed foods are rapidly digested and more likely to induce a blood sugar spike. This is important, because there is a known link between rising glucose levels and activation of areas of the brain that are involved with addiction. The key ingredients of the most addictive foods undergo the refinement process that strips them of fiber, water, and protein, all of which slow the rate that sugar enters the bloodstream.
How The Brain Changes
When you eat an addictive food, the blood sugar spike makes you feel good—think of the classic image of a kid scarfing down candy and getting a sugar high. But the physiological effect doesn’t end there. Dopamine and opioid receptors in the brain are activated triggering a feel-good sensation in the same way as alcohol and drugs are pleasurable.
Rodent studies show that instead of gradual decline over time, bingeing on sugar produces increase in dopamine. These recurrent elevations are a hallmark of addictive substances. Further, bingeing on fat-rich foods avoids the opiate-like withdrawal that occurs in response to foods that are high in sugar but lack fat. Therefore, researchers think that foods that combine a large fat and sugar affect the opioid system in the brain to make these foods even more addicting.
The Top Ten Most Addictive Foods
These top ten foods were compiled from questionnaires that assessed addictive-like eating behavior in 398 participants ranging in age from 18 to 65.
A key predictor of addictiveness was a high glycemic load—a term that captures both the quantity of refined carbs and how rapidly they are absorbed into the system. Besides causing a large and prolonged blood sugar spike, these foods activate reward-related circuitry in the brain, increasing cravings and hunger and leading to overeating.
Higher fat content also predicted the addictiveness of the foods tested because it affects brain receptors and increases the palatability of food. Interestingly, foods higher in fat were problematic both for people who regularly suffer food addiction and those who don’t have a history of bingeing.
Addictiveness rating: 4.01
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t like pizza—that combination of gooey cheese, oil, soft crust, and tomato sauce is hard to turn away. Besides the 300 calories and 10 grams of not-so healthy fat (most pizza cheese is highly processed), pizza is quickly digested and lacks protein or fiber, having little effect on satiety.
Eat This Instead: Omelet.
Eggs provide the highest quality protein of all foods after milk and they rank top on scales of satiety and appetite reduction.
Addictiveness rating: 3.73
Nowadays most people think of chocolate as a health food, and it’s true that chocolate contains disease-fighting antioxidants. The problem is when you eat too much or pick unhealthy brands and you get a killer combination of processed fat and sugar. For example, a Hershey bar’s first ingredient is sugar, followed by chocolate, and then cocoa butter, milk fat, and various emulsifiers and artificial flavors. This provides 210 calories per bar with 13 grams of fat.
Eat This Instead: Blueberries.
Packed with antioxidants, these flavor bombs can help you re-train your taste buds away from the sick sweetness of added sugars towards healthier, more satiating choices.
#3: Chips (tied with chocolate)
Addictiveness rating: 3.73
Chips are the bane of any snacker—they spike blood sugar, are packed with fat (often processed) and have almost no effect on hunger levels. In fact, they seem to trigger food intake in a study of rats that ate to excess for pleasure rather than stopping when hunger was fulfilled.
Eat This Instead: Almonds.
High in fiber, these nuggets of deliciousness contain zero carbs but provide protein and fat for a greater hunger-reducing effect. Remember to be mindful of portions.
Addictiveness rating: 3.71
A 2013 study found that after being exposed to cocaine, morphine, or allowed to eat Oreo cookies, brain activity in rats was higher with the Oreos than with the drugs. The result was media reports that sugar is more addictive than coke. Whether that headline is true remains to be seen, but one thing you can be sure of is that the fat-sugar combination of your favorite cookies makes them highly addictive and because they’re so small, it’s easy to inhale a thousand calories in one sitting.
Eat This Instead: High-Protein Banana Chews (Recipe thanks to the Poliquin Lifestyle Café).
1½ ripe bananas
½ cup finely chopped pitted dates
2 tablespoons of flaked unsweetened coconut flakes
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of rolled oats
2½ tablespoons extra light olive oil
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Chocolate or vanilla protein powder
Mix ingredients in a food processor and form into small chews. No baking needed.
#5: Ice Cream
Addictiveness rating: 3.68
The combination of creamy, sweet, and cold makes ice cream hard to resist and when you throw in nuts or chocolate chunks most people don’t even try. The bad news about ice cream is that a tiny half cup of Ben and Jerry’s packs 230 calories and 14 grams of fat, making it easy to create a calorie imbalance if you decide to indulge.
Eat This Instead: Greek Yogurt
As long as it’s sugar free, this high-protein yogurt can reduce hunger and improve satiety compared to low-protein yogurt and it has that delectable creaminess that makes it a viable substitute for ice cream and fro-yo.
#6: French Fries
Addictiveness rating: 3.60
Potatoes happen to be one of the most satiating foods on the planet but when you fry them in oil, toss them with salt and dip them in high-fructose corn syrup filled ketchup, something changes, making French Fries a killer to moderate. A large order of fries tops out at 510 calories and 24 grams of fat, which is more than a quarter of what the average person should get in a day.
Eat This Instead: Baked Potato
One study found that people rate potatoes as the most satisfying, hunger-reducing food of all. Of course, potatoes do provide a decent amount of starch, making them off limits if you’re on a low-carb diet in which case go for veggie sticks (cucumbers, peppers, celery, radishes) instead.
Addictiveness rating: 3.51
The combination of processed carbs, saturated fat, and sodium makes cheeseburgers the go-to meal for anyone trying to gain weight. Interestingly, beef is the one high-protein, unprocessed food that scores high for addictiveness. Despite having zero carbs, steak ranked 17 out of 35 foods with a rating of 2.54.
Eat This Instead: Chicken Breast
Protein rich with less saturated fat, chicken is best known among body builders as a superior hunger-reducing food.
#8: Soda (Not Diet)
Addictiveness rating: 3.29
Despite various alternatives from stevia-sweetened soda to diet to seltzer, Americans aren’t getting the message that soda is poison. Linked with increased fat gain, diabetes, and disease risk, soda is one of the worst things you can consume for health and well being. And because it’s liquid, it has no effect on tamping down hunger or reducing calorie intake.
Eat This Instead: Mineral Water
If you need something a little jazzier than plain water, try sparkling water with lemon and you’ll save the calories while getting a nice dose of antioxidants.
Addictiveness rating: 3.26
How can you not love cake? From creamy chocolate frosting to the rich cocoa flavor of the pastry, cake has a lot going for it. It’s also one of the most refined foods on this list. With highly processed flour and sugar and chemically altered fats to improve texture, cake will spike blood sugar and then leave you feeling empty and wanting more.
Eat This Instead: Protein Shake
Protein powder is easily the healthiest processed food on the planet. Whey protein improves insulin and blood sugar tolerance, while blunting hunger and building muscle. Toss in blueberries, sugar free cocoa powder, or nut butter for flavor and extra nutrition.
Addictiveness rating: 3.22
Although it contains miniscule carbs and a decent amount of protein, you have to use extreme caution with cheese because servings are so tiny. Then there’s the fact that cheese rarely is eaten alone—it almost always accompanies bread, crackers, or some other refined, carb-filled foot.
Eat This Instead: Avocado
Called an anti-obesity food by scientists, the avocado is jam-packed with nutrients and antioxidants and is high in monounsaturated fats. Studies show it has a superior hunger reducing affect and can help you lose fat if included in a meal plan that is mindful of portions.