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Break Up With Enemy Foods

New research proves some unhealthy foods are more addictive than others.


by Sarah Mahoney

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Instead of blaming yourself for the numbers you see on the scale, it might be time to start blaming your food. Surprising new research from the University of Michigan suggests that some foods may be truly addictive.

The study offers plenty to think about, especially if you’re looking to change your relationship with your body. It reports that unhealthy highly processed foods, including chocolate, pizza and French fries, are among the most addictive foods. Unprocessed and less-processed foods that have no added fat or refined carbs, such as brown rice and salmon, were not associated with addictive-like eating behavior.

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On the surface, those results may not look particularly surprising. Who wouldn’t choose pizza over brown rice? Here’s the big news: this study looked at actual foods, rather than ingredients or components. And while most of the world may toss the words “addiction” and “food” around quite casually, “we use the same exact diagnostic criteria that we use to diagnose any other sort of addiction,” Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and a study co-author, told Life Reimagined. “Specifically, we are looking for the presence of behaviors that indicate a loss of control, continued use despite negative consequences, tolerance, withdrawal and other symptoms of addiction.” While people need to eat to live, “we are investigating whether certain types of foods are capable of triggering an addictive process. Food is not like alcohol or heroin where people become intoxicated or high, but cigarettes also do not cause people to become intoxicated and they are highly addictive. If highly processed foods are addictive, the addiction may more closely resemble tobacco addiction than other types of addiction.”

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One part of the study looked at people between 18 and 70, “and we didn’t find many  differences by age,” she says. (Younger people did show a slightly increased likelihood of preferring sweet foods.) People with symptoms of food addiction or with higher body mass indexes had more problems with highly processed foods, suggesting some of us may be particularly sensitive to the possible "rewarding" properties of these unhealthy foods.

So does that mean that we should shun pizza? That’s probably taking it too far, Gearhardt says. “We know alcohol is addictive and the majority of people are able to drink it in moderation. However, if you are struggling with an unhealthy relationship with these foods, it may not just be a lack of willpower, but the way those foods are triggering your reward system.”

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The best treatment for food addiction is still unclear.But if people increase their consumption of healthy foods “and avoid periods of fasting, they feel more in control of their eating,” Gearhardt says. What makes it so difficult is that our environment bombards us with these addictive foods, making them “more accessible, cheaper, and heavily marketed. If our environment became healthier, we would likely see widespread improvements in people's eating behavior.”   

For Gearhardt, the lesson comes back to affirming what we already know. “It highlights the importance of not just looking at a single nutrient in isolation [like sugar or fat], but to really consider what kind of food it is and build your healthy eating habits. It is common sense that the more we eat whole foods, the healthier we are.”

Photo Credit: Henrik Sorensen/Getty