Adapted from articles from Catherine Guthrie and Marco Dregni of Experience Life magazine.


Why are certain foods more addictive than others?  Why do we always grab the foods that are highly processed as a snack instead of one that’s healthy and whole?  Compare two common snack foods: baby carrots and potato chips. One is fresh, healthy, and nutritious, and yet it’s unlikely most people would ever overindulge. The other is full of salt, fat and starches that the body converts to sugar and is remarkably easy to devour a family-size bag in one sitting.

Many studies, including a 2021 report in the Annual Review of Nutrition notes that And highly processed foods lead the way in people’s choice of snacks. Researchers developing the Yale Food Addiction Scale, released in 2009, used criteria from the Amer­ican Psychiatric Association’s Diag­nostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to identify signs of addiction-like eating.  The foods that most likely to cause this behavior include sweet, sugary drinks, salty snacks, white flour and high-fat anything, from hamburgers to pizza.   A recent survey of addictive-eating patterns published on-line in PLOS ONE found that the most problematic foods are all highly processed, with ice cream, chocolate and French fries on top of the list.

Blame it on food manufacturers who have been leveraging science and technology to enhance their products.  They manipulate food in ways that not only play on our innate fondness for sugar, salt and fat but boost their overall taste, texture, aroma and appearance.

Think about the flavor of beef infused into McDonald’s signature French fries, the creamy filling injected into a Twinkie or the fake crosshatched grill marks stamped onto a KFC grilled chicken breast, and you begin to get the idea. The stuff regularly served up at every chain restaurant, gas station and food court amounts to an edible — and irresistible offering of colorful, alluring processed foods. It’s dangled in front of us around the clock.

Food makers capitalize on the body’s drive for calorie-dense food by providing a steady, inexpensive supply of the stuff that’s rendered virtually irresistible through techno- and science-savvy enhancements that our brains and bodies have not yet developed resistance to.  Since we come into contact with cues and ads for these foods, at schools, on the internet, even in hospitals, the chemicals in our brains are not designed to help us resist this craving.

Being attracted to high-calorie foods worked to our advantage when food was scarce and humans had to hunt and gather for a living, explains Christopher Ochner, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Obesity Research Center. “The problem is that, today, the food never runs out.”

The taste preferences that food-product designers play upon today evolved over many thousands of years as a survival mechanism, notes Dana Small, PhD, a brain researcher at Yale University School of Medicine. They were a means for our ancestors to identify which foods had the dense caloric value their bodies needed to support huge daily energy expenditures.

Research suggests that the carbohydrates in highly processed foods rush into the bloodstream, causing blood-sugar spikes. As these carbs are digested, they prompt the gut to send signals to the brain, triggering a surge of dopamine, which has been associated with addictive behavior.

­Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Michael Moss, author of Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions, explains that whole foods are unlikely to cause such spikes. They typically take longer to prepare and eat, essentially putting the brake on bingeing. “Speed is a big factor in addiction; the faster a substance hits the brain, the more apt we are to be seduced by it,” he explains. “The slowness of whole foods helps avoid overeating.”

Since it may be difficult to curb your consumption of processed foods, try these suggestions to reduce your vulnerability and conditioned overeating of these foods.

1. Be Aware – becoming aware is the first step of what you’re putting in your body.  Using a food journal, write down all the foods that you ate today including portions.  Also include how you felt after right after eating and then an hour after that to check if you experienced a spike or brain fog, signs of blood-sugar spiking.

2. Eat Regularly – when you are caught off-guard, hungry and at the mercy of your environment, you will tend to eat anything that is around you.  Instead, plan what you’re going to eat and when. Meals and snacks should be eaten at regular intervals making you feel satisfied and will help keep the cravings at bay.

3. Eat Substantial Foods – simple sugars and refined flours are not as satisfying as foods that digest more gradually. Protein has the best staying power, taking 2.5 times longer to digest than simple sugars. High-fiber foods, like legumes, fruits, veggies and whole grains, also leave the body feeling full longer because they add volume to meals and take longer to digest.

4. Eat Real Foods – get comfortable with eating real foods such as anything whole and mostly does not come out of a package.  Stock your refrigerator with fruits, veggies, fresh bean dips, turkey slices and anything fresh and inviting.  Resist bringing junk food into the house because seeing them in the cupboard may weaken your discipline in avoiding these foods.

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