The 10 Most Addictive Foods

These treats may have you chemically hooked

December 11, 2012
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Constant Cravings

Talk about the worst words to hear from your waiter. Oh, you know you shouldn't, but you're no match for the smell of those fresh-baked cookies wafting from the kitchen. Why is every super-palatable food of today damn near impossible to resist?

"Nobody's binging on spinach or broccoli," says Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Michigan. As co-creator of Yale University's Food Addiction Scale, she's contributing to a growing body of research that puts "food"--or the processed chemicals that pass for food these days--in the same category as drugs of abuse.

How can a bag of chips and a sweet little snack cake turn you into an addict? Blame sugar, salt, and fat. Our bodies have not evolved to handle this over-stimulating trifecta, says Gearhardt. Long before Mrs. Fields was peddling cookies in shopping malls, sugar was a rare treat, found in fruit and guarded by stinging bees; salt was a simple garnish; and fat was a nutrient that had to be hunted or foraged. (Search: How to Choose Healthy Fats) Now, processed foods often contain all three (remember the bacon ice cream sundae?)--minus the protein, fiber, and water that help your body handle them.

And women are more likely than men to get addicted. "Women tend to restrict and then binge," says Gearhardt. "That seems to sensitize the brain's developing an addictive process and for you to have a psychologically unhealthy relationship with the substance." (Sound familiar? Find out if you're a food addict, and how to beat it.)

So which foods are the most addicting? Gearhardt told us the top 10. Is your biggest weakness in the countdown?

The three-stage detox and recovery plan for overeating and food addiction from Pam Peeke, M.D, M.P.H.

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10. White Bread

You may already know that white bread was one of the worst things you have in your fridge. (Go through your refrigerator to clean up your diet! See the other 8 Worst Foods Lurking in Your Fridge.) It's made with refined flour, which has been stripped of the bran, the germ, and all of the nutrients normally present in bread. What a shame that restaurants tempt you with an entire basket before every meal out! Opt for substantial breads that you can't squish into the size of a marble. That way, you know the grains are truly "whole".

Video: Toss the White Bread

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9. Donuts

Shocker, right? Experts think sugar might be the most addicting of the three. (Ask any sugarholic who's tried to kick the habit, and they'll surely agree.) Science has proven the crazy-addictive potential of sugar. Studies have shown that every time rats eat large amounts, dopamine is released. That's not normal, says study author Dr. Nicole Avena, PhD, a research neuroscientist and expert in food addiction. "The dopamine release becomes more what you'd expect to see with a drug of abuse," she says. (Keep you're your blood sugar levels balanced. Try these 4 Best Foods for Diabetics to fight fat and lose weight!)

10 Despicable Donuts

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8. Pasta

We eat way too much of this starchy childhood favorite--and then we drench it in butter, salt, and cheese. The typical Italian portion can fit in a teacup; American portions are closer to plate size. But it's not all bad news: buy high-quality spelt pasta, cook it al dente (which lowers its glycemic load), and use olive oil to greatly increase pasta's nutritional profile, says Andrew Weil, MD, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in his new cookbook True Food.

Related: Get a Flat Belly By Friday!

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7. Cake

There's something irresistible about the spongy buoyancy of a sugary cake--and don't even get us started on frosting. (Frosting!) If you eat too much of it, though, you might not accumulate as many candles on that cake as you'd like. (Here's what you can do to recover from a night of overeating.) Sugar--in its many guises--has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.

9 Steps to Break Your Sugar Habit

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6. Chips

Chips are ridiculously high in fat and salt, but that doesn't stop with the notoriously greasy brands. Even baked veggie chips are packed with fat and many mainstream chip brands list sugar on their ingredients lists. Whip up a batch of homemade kale chips with a touch of sea salt to satisfy your craving for crunch, instead.

10 Healthy Salty Snacks

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5. Cookies

There's a reason the cookie jar is never full. According to a research review, merely seeing tempting food releases dopamine. Indulge and your brain gets a boost from that happy hormone, priming you to want more (and more, and more.) Cookies, too, typically contain the three temptresses in one place. It would take an iron will to resist that. You don't have to give up sweets altogether--check out these 10 Crazy Ways to Sweeten Without Sugar.

10 Sinfully Bad Supermarket Cookies

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4. Chocolate

Handle this potent stuff with care: A bite will do you. One study published in a 1997 issue of International Journal of Psychophysiology found that self-identified chocoholics had physical, behavioral, and emotional responses to chocolate that closely resembled those of drug addicts to their drugs. Sure, dark chocolate with a high concentration of cocoa imparts some health benefits, but most commercial chocolate--packed with milk solids, oil, fat, and sugar--would not make the cut. (Here are 10 Healthy Chocolate Recipes to help satisfy cravings without the weight gain.)

9 Ways to Indulge Your Sweet Tooth Without Blowing Your Diet

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3. French Fries

Forever beckoning from its hot-oil baths, French fries are a dieter's nightmare and a food industry's dream. They're the apex of the sugar-fat-salt triumvirate: salted, fatty, and with a touch of natural sugar. Besides being insanely addicting, commercial French fries also contain high levels of the carcinogen acrylamide. Luckily, scientists have come up with safer ways you can enjoy them.

The Best and Worst French Fries in America

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2. Candy

Mark Gold, MD, Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Florida, has been researching food addiction for 30 years. He found that the sugary foods you're exposed to in utero and throughout childhood make kids love--and crave--more sugar. "We need to pay attention to what we feed our children," he says. "We may be setting them up to become food addicts."

Related: 10 "Healthy" Foods That Aren't

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1. Ice Cream

Ladies and gents, say hello to your biggest food addiction. It's no wonder: Ice cream is the go-to breakup binge, the creamiest celebration treat, the perfect hot-summer-day refresher, the more comforting cold-winter-night snack (under the covers? Anybody?) What's the big deal? Animal studies have shown that high consumption of processed treats like ice cream may reduce the appeal of foods that were once considered rewarding, like watermelon. That's because it shifts our brain's hedonic set point. Once that happens, the only way to get your fix is, well, more ice cream. (Instead, try these Low-Calorie Ice Cream Ideas next time a craving hits.)

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