Careful, These Foods Could Hook You

July 8, 2013

Can’t keep from plowing through the second sleeve of cookies after finishing off the first? A lack of willpower may not be to blame. According to new research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, you may actually be addicted to highly processed carbohydrates.

For the study, 12 overweight men drank two types of milkshakes. They tasted the same, packed the same number of calories, and were equally sweet; the only difference was that one contained rapidly digested, high-glycemic index carbohydrates and the other, slowly digested, low-glycemic index carbohydrates. Using MRI scans, the researchers observed the participants’ brain activity during the four hours after slurping the shake, a period that heavily impacts eating behavior later in the day.


The scans showed that after the men consumed the high-glycemic index milkshake, their nucleus accumbens, a region that regulates addictive behaviors like substance abuse and gambling, lit up like last week’s fireworks. The finding suggests that refined carbohydrates may literally be addictive, says lead author David Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center.

Highly processed (aka refined) carbs have been stripped of their macronutrient content and reduced to a simple sugar, and after loading up on the sweet stuff, the body pumps out the feel-good hormone dopamine at volumes that are comparable to those associated with drug abuse, says Nicole Avena, Ph.D., a research neuroscientist and expert in food addiction.

White foods (think: white bread and table sugar) are infamous for their refined carb content, but some so-called health foods including instant oatmeal, cereals, and whole gains can be chock-full of simple sugars, says NYC nutritionist Shira Lenchewski, RD Your move: Steer clear of packaged carb that have the words “refined” or “enriched,” and if carbs are on the menu come dine-time, make sure fiber comes along side it, as the nutrient steadies the body’s absorption of sugar.

But refined carbs aren’t the only foods that can get you hooked. Here, three more crave-causing foods—and how you can break their hold on you:

Rich, fatty foods cause chemical highs and lows in the brain similar to those caused by illicit drugs, ultimately leading to physical changes in brain composition, an increase in stress hormones, and depression, according to research from the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre and the university's Faculty of Medicine. The result: You keep coming back for more of your fatty food of choice, looking for your next pick-me-up.

Break Your Addiction: Friend the right fats. Getting two to three servings of foods such as salmon, flaxseed, and soybeans that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids supports healthy brain cell function, endorphin levels, and positive moods, Lenchewski says.

That “joke” diet soda addiction of yours is serious: When French researchers hooked rats on cocaine and then gave them a choice between cocaine or the popular diet drink sweetener saccharine, most went straight for the saccharine. The effect applies to those little packets, too. “Sucralose (code name: Splenda) is 600 times sweeter than table sugar and overstimulates the body’s sugar receptors, making you crave intensely sweet foods,” Lenchewski says.

Break Your Addiction: It’ll take time, but gradually cutting back—and eventually out—artificial sweeteners is easier if you have something to turn to. Try drinking tea with honey or sweetening your foods with raw cane sugar, she recommends. (Follow these 9 Steps to Break Your Sugar Habit)

One 2011 study published in PNAS found that when mice were starved of salt, their brain cells created proteins that are typically linked to addiction. And when the mice finally got the sodium-filled goods, the brain believes it has received its fix well before it before the salt even has time to reach the brain. While researchers believe the effect served an evolutionary purpose to maintain adequate sodium levels, most Americans get double the sodium they should.

Break Your Addiction: Since three-fourths of the average American’s sodium intake comes from commercially prepared foods, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, eating whole foods (and just shaking on salt as needed) is the easiest way to shake your sodium habit. Gradually, your taste buds will adjust and you’ll need less salt to get the same taste you love. (Related: 7 Salt-Free Ways to Flavor Food)