The science of food addiction is very real, if so far understudied. What we do know is that some people’s brains chemically react to certain foods in the same way a crack addict’s lights up when he, er, lights up. “It’s been demonstrated that the reward centers of the brain get activated in response to the anticipation of eating a highly rewarding food,” says Jenny Arussi, M.S., R.D., an expert in unhealthy eating habits and founder of Change My Eating in LA. “And when the food is actually consumed, different parts of the brain are not optimally activated, causing a difficulty feeling satiated and a loss of control over eating.”
For some people, there may also a psychological element; what’s known as emotional eating. “Consuming certain ‘comfort’ food triggers the release of the hormone serotonin, which creates a happy feeling, and a part of you becomes conditioned to linking eating with happiness,” says clinical psychologist Karin Schwartz, Psy.D. “As you rely on eating to dispel negative emotions and induce positive ones, you become dependent on food to make you feel happy.”
The most addictive foods, listed next, have a couple things in common: They tend to contain refined carbohydrates (like white sugar and white flour) and fat. But just as not everyone who tries heroin will become a junkie, some people can control themselves around an unattended sheet cake. “It may be that individuals who consume food in an addictive manner find the blood sugar spike from the refined carbs more rewarding than those who don’t report addictive-like eating,” says Erica M. Schulte, M.S., a doctoral student at the University of Michigan and lead author of a recent study on food addiction.
Think you have a problem?
Food addiction is very hard to treat, given that trigger foods are always available and hard to avoid. Generally, seeing a nutritionist and/or psychologist is recommended to help you get a handle on the how and why, and game-plan your next steps. “The goal is to find healthier coping mechanisms to create this feeling that food may be providing temporarily,” says Schwartz. To avoid the hormone spikes caused by trigger foods, Arussi recommends avoiding those refined carbs and instead balancing meals and snacks to include lean protein and unrefined carbs.