Up to 20 percent of Americans struggle daily with overeating behaviors and tendencies that could easily be categorized as food addiction. When you zero in on obese Americans, the percentage who suffer from food addiction is significantly higher.
Food addiction is not currently recognized as a clinical disorder, which is partially due to the fact that it is a fairly new concept. There are ongoing studies the seek to discover the underlying cause of the condition and the nature of how it affects both the physical and mental state.
Food addiction is very similar to drug addiction in that those suffering from it are not able to control themselves when it comes to resisting certain foods. This causes them to overeat, gain weight, and often develop serious health problems such as obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.
Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut has now developed a measurement tool that can serve as a standard to help people evaluate how addicting their food choices might be. It is known as the YFAS, or the Yale Food Addiction Scale, and it is now the standard tool used in many food addiction studies. They have now been used in over 25 food addiction studies to date by researchers who are trying to create a reference point that can help them understand food addiction and find possible methods for treating it.
Both surveys and studies clearly indicate that processed foods that have a lot of fat or sugar are the most likely to be addictive and to trigger addictive tendencies. One study which was conducted at the University of Michigan followed over 500 participants, and they were able to discover the 12 most addictive foods. Note that this is defined as the foods which are most likely to prompt addictive behavior and not as foods that can particularly cause addiction in someone who is not prone to it.
The 12 Most Addictive Foods
The researchers who performed the above mentioned study used the YFAS to evaluate participants’ reactions to a list of 35 different foods. A number of these foods were processed and refined while others were clean whole foods.
Each subject was asked to give each type of food a rating between 1 and 7. Foods that were rated at 1 were considered to not be addictive in any way while those that were rated at 7 were considered extremely addictive foods that can cause the subjects to have difficulty controlling their eating habits.
The data collected in the study reflected that anywhere from 7 percent to 10 percent of participants could be categorized as addicted to food. What’s more disturbing is that nearly every participant (92 percent) indicated that they experienced feeling addictive tendencies with at least one type of food. They stated that they often felt that they should stop eating when partaking in these foods, and even at times wanted to stop, but they simply couldn’t.
Out of the 35 different foods tested, 12 of them were considered to be the most addictive by the highest number of participants. Here is the list of those foods along with the YFAS rating represented as the average rating given by all of the participants:
- Fried Chicken – 2.97
- Bacon – 3.03
- Cheese – 3.22
- Cake – 3.26
- Soda (Sugar-Sweetened) – 3.29
- Cheeseburgers – 3.50
- French Fries – 3.60
- Ice Cream – 3.68
- Cookies – 3.71
- Chips – 3.73
- Chocolate – 3.73
- Pizza – 4.01
If you have ever found yourself eating more of any of these 12 foods than you really intended to, you are definitely not alone. Every food on this list is highly processed and contains refined ingredients. Some of them are high in fat while others are high in sugar, and some of the foods listed are high in both. Every food on this list is high in calories.
The 12 Least Addictive Foods
By nature of how the study was conducted, it revealed the most easily resisted foods alongside the most addictive. Here are the 12 foods that participants found least likely to contribute to addiction or addictive behavior:
- Water – 1.94
- Granola Bar – 1.93
- Strawberries – 1.88
- Corn (No Butter or Salt) – 1.87
- Salmon – 1.84
- Bananas – 1.77
- Broccoli – 1.74
- Brown Rice – 1.74
- Apples – 1.66
- Beans (No Sauce) – 1.63
- Carrots – 1.60
- Cucumbers – 1.53
You may have noticed that almost all of these foods are whole foods with only one ingredient and little to no processing, with granola bars serving as the only exception to this. Interestingly, the only drink option that made the cut was water. Not a single one of these foods is high in calories or fat, and any sugar found in each option is pure, naturally occurring sugar and not an additive of any kind.
This shows that the reason that people overeat or become addicted to food is often biochemical, and this may be a key to helping us treat or even completely stop certain addictive food behaviors.
Can Food Be Too Leading To Over-Consumption?
The strongest link that has been found between food type and over-consumption is a clear indication that high fat, high sugar, and processed foods are all consistently more addictive than natural whole foods.
Hyper-palatable is a term that is used to describe foods that taste extremely good, and it is a term that most often applies to processed foods. Most major food manufacturers employ teams of talented scientists whose sole purgative is to find ways to make the company’s products objectively more tempting to the average person’s taste buds. This is a smart move for the company because it increases profits and ensures repeat buyers.
These processed foods are engineered to kickstart food cravings, usually by being very high in calories and sugar. This causes your blood sugar to fluctuate violently and tells the body that it needs more food when it doesn’t.
Although there are definitely some foods that are significantly more addictive than others, the biggest factor in the food addiction equation is the human brain.
It has been proven that refined and processed foods cause an entirely different reaction in your brain than natural whole foods do. When you compare the reactions that can be seen in the brain after eating whole foods to those that can be seen after eating foods that are processed, you can see that the processed foods cause a release of massive amounts of mood-enhancing chemicals. These feel-good substances flood through your nervous system and light your brain’s reward center up like a Christmas tree. Some of these chemicals can be seen when eating natural foods we enjoy, but it’s nowhere near as powerful as the reaction that processed food causes.
After it’s has a taste of this massive reward, the brain just has to have more. This is how we develop hard to kick cravings for hyper-palatable foods, and it can become a never-ending cycle that leads to addictive eating behaviors.
Some of the studies on food addiction have tested lab animals to determine how they will behave when given a choice between natural whole foods and hyper-palatable processed options. The animals almost invariably chose to eat the processed foods 100 percent of the time and completely stopped eating the healthier alternatives, instead going for the foods that would light up the reward center of their brains.
The rats in these tests were even willing to endure painful shocks and other punishing obstacles to reach the addictive processed food rather than avoiding all of the negative experiences by simply eating the healthy food that was easier to access. This is alarmingly similar to the behavior that can be observed during animal studies regarding the effects of cocaine addiction.
Even more disturbingly, there was another study which tested whether rats would show a preference to sugared water or to unflavored water that was provided alongside a dose of cocaine, and the rats actually preferred the sugared water and behaved in a manner that indicated it was more addictive.
Addictive Foods Final Words
There are many people who look down on anyone who cannot control their eating habits, and they often consider overeating to be a sign of laziness and a complete lack of willpower. However, scientific evidence has now shown that food addiction is a real and provable biological concern.
In some cases, conditions like obesity and Type 2 Diabetes could be a symptom of ongoing addiction to certain food items that can trigger a reward system in the brain to bring about overwhelming urges. Research in this field is currently ongoing and will hopefully be able to offer more evidence and a deeper understanding that could one day lead to the discovery of treatment options that we don’t currently have access to.
The best way to avoid addictive tendencies when planning your diet is to stay away from hyper-palatable processed foods and instead opt for natural whole foods that will release only the appropriate amount of mood-enhancing chemicals when eaten.
If you personally find it difficult to control yourself when consuming processed foods, especially any of those listed as one of the 12 most addictive foods, you should know that there is a very physical and biochemical cause for this behavior and that making a change to different, less addictive food options could be the cure.
Food addiction may sound a bit like an embellishment, but it is a very real problem in today’s culture that is dominated by convenience-driven processed foods. It is clear that there are some foods that are significantly more likely to trigger these addictive behaviors, and there are even some foods that are scientifically engineered to be addicting. If you can avoid the 12 most addicting foods and prioritize less addictive and healthier foods in your diet, you can go a long way in keeping yourself from engaging in addictive eating habits.