Have you ever opened a bag of chips, only to polish it off moments later?
There could be a scientific reason for that.
The goal of the study was to better understand which foods, and properties of those foods, were associated with addictive overeating.
It’s no coincidence that your favourite junk foods (as opposed to fresh produce and other natural foods) top the list.
“The level of processing” is the largest predictor for how addicting a food will be, nutrition expert and study co-author Nicole Avena told Global News.
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Researchers suggest that food with added amounts of fat and refined carbohydrates (such as sugar and white flour) may have qualities similar to those of drugs, like nicotine or alcohol.
These ingredients “have been shown in other studies to activate reward-related regions of the brain,” Avena said.
“The foods we often tend to overeat and feel compelled to eat might have those effects on our behaviour because of something about them is causing addiction-like changes in our behaviours.”
During the study, participants were asked to analyze 35 foods and choose which they most associated with addictive-like eating behaviours.
Researchers then used the hierarchy to investigate which food attributes — for example, fat grams — were related to addictive-like eating behaviour.
Other foods near the top of the list were french fries, cheeseburgers, pop, cake, cheese and bacon. Of 35 foods, the ones least associated with addictive-like eating behaviours were brown rice, apple, beans, carrots and cucumber.
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One limitation of the study is that it only included 35 foods, Avena said.
“Larger studies are being planned that include more foods, so we can get a better sense of the different types of foods that people tend to eat, and how they might be associated with addictive eating,” she said.
In addition, Avena admits that it can be difficult to define a “processed food.”
“We defined ‘processed’ as marked by the addition of fat and/or refined carbohydrate,” Avena said. In the study, “non-processed” foods were considered to be things like bananas, broccoli and apples.
“For the average person out there shopping and trying to decide which foods are more processed than others, those that are shelf stable are likely to be more processed and contain additives and preservatives,” Avena explained. “Fresh foods, like fruits, vegetables, plain nuts, and meats, are better options as foods that are minimally processed.”
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But how do you know if you’re addicted to a food? “Negative consequences” are the biggest indicator of food addiction, according to Avena.
“If you are overeating and it causes you to develop diabetes or be unhappy and you still can’t stop, then there may be an addictive process involved,” she said. “Also, needing to eat more and more to feel satisfied.”
To be addicted to food is to have difficulty “reducing intake or saying no to eating something,” said Avena.
It’s a chronic issue, not something that happens once and a while. Eating a slice of pie on Thanksgiving (even though you’re full) is not an indication of food addiction.
It becomes an addiction when it negatively impacts your health and well-being.
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In her book Why Diets Fail, Avena provides advice for fighting overeating caused by food addiction. In her view, distraction is key when a craving presents itself.
“When people indulge a little, it can lead to them to eating more than they intend. A hedonic craving (or a craving for something when we aren’t physically in need of calories) will pass in time, so the key is to distract yourself or remove yourself from the cues that are causing the craving,” she told Global News.
Social cues that can prompt a hedonic cravings — such as ads or logos — are pretty much everywhere we go.
“We can’t avoid them, but we can be aware of the powerful effect they have on us.”