Researchers have wondered whether we can become addicted to food for more than a century. There have been reports of people losing control over how much they eat, and experiencing withdrawal when they are cut off, just like with drug and alcohol addiction. By now, many agree that food addiction can be a real problem for at least some types of foods.
For the first time, a team of researchers looked at exactly which types of foods could be the most addictive. They asked a group of 120 undergraduates at the University of Michigan, and another group of nearly 400 adults, about 35 different types of food -- from pizza to broccoli -- and whether they think they could have problems controlling how much they ate of each one. Eighteen of the items were processed foods, meaning they contained added sugars and fats.
Topping the list were pizza, chocolate, chips, cookies, ice cream, French fries, cake and soda, all considered processed foods. They were followed by cheese and bacon -- both unprocessed foods, but high in fat and salt.
Fruits and vegetables (strawberries, carrots and broccoli, for example) were at the bottom of the list.
"In a similar manner that drugs are processed to increase their addictive potential, this study provides insight that highly processed foods may be intentionally manufactured to be particularly rewarding through the addition of fat and refined carbohydrates, like white flour and sugar," said Erica Schulte, graduate student of psychology at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, which was published in February in PLOS One.
The researchers found that the most problematic foods tended to be those with a high glycemic load, meaning they contained a lot of sugar and caused a spike in blood sugar. The authors wrote that these qualities could make foods more difficult to stop eating in a similar way as drugs that are highly concentrated and rapidly absorbed into the body are more addictive.
The researchers also found that, among the adults in their study, those with a high BMI and those who were at risk of having any kind of food addiction were most likely to have difficulty controlling themselves around a particular food item.
The researchers assessed food addiction risk using the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which was developed by the study's lead author, Ashley N. Gearhardt. (You can test your risk of having a food addiction by taking a short version of this survey
Although not all foods have the potential to be addictive, "it is critical to understand which ones do," said Mike Robinson, assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience and behavior at Wesleyan University, who was not involved in the current study.
"We are all pressed for time, and food is becoming more and more available," but we need to think about what we are grabbing on the go, Robinson said. Although a handful of almonds and a milkshake might have the same number of calories, they will have a different effects on your brain and your reward system, and you will be much more likely to go back to get more of the milkshake, he added.
Many of the symptoms of food addiction look like drug addiction, including that people need more and more of the food item to get the same effect. They also accept negative consequences to obtain it and feel the anxiety or agitation of withdrawal when they can't have it. Although food withdrawal is not as intense as heroin withdrawal, neither is cocaine withdrawal. "It varies by the drug," Robinson said.
Just like any addiction, the first step to recovery is to acknowledge there is a problem, Robinson said. "I think in the majority of cases when we have a problem with a substance, whether it's a food or drug...we will ignore it," he said.
Robinson suggests avoiding foods if you have trouble controlling how much of them you eat. "We are not in a situation where we will have dietary deficiencies (and) whenever possible we should be aiming to cook foods for ourselves," he said.