Why Foods Are Addictive

Have you ever wondered why you open a bag of cookies and can’t stop eating them, or just what it is about pizza that makes it so delicious that you could eat it every day of the week? Well, a recent study looked at just that — researchers ranked food that was most associated with indicators of addiction.

Scientists used the Yale Food Addiction Scale — which determines the criteria of substance use disorders — and applied it to food. Pizza ranked number one!

The main reason food like pizza is so addictive is because of the body’s response to it. These types of foods are what is scientifically referred to as hyper-palatable. This means they are high in fat, refined carbohydrates, and salt. Manufacturers have altered foods so that they trick the body into seeking reward from these foods over more healthy options.

Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Friedman says, “Neuroscientists have found that food and recreational drugs have a common target in the ‘reward circuit’ of the brain, and that the brains of humans and other animals who are stressed undergo biological changes that can make them more susceptible to addiction.”

All rewards — food, sex, money, gambling, drugs — cause a release of dopamine, the brain chemical responsible for pleasure. It is this pleasure that the brain stores in its memory as an important experience, creating a reward circuit. Historically, this memory served us well when we were trying to locate food, but today we use it to seek pleasure when we are feeling stressed or suffering with mental illness.

In fact, Dr. Friedman explains that lower social status, a lesser amount of social support, or a previous history of addiction can result in fewer of dopamine receptors (known as D2 receptors) in the brain, making us more likely to seek pleasure from high-reward substances. Also, a lack of these receptors has been linked with less activity in the part of the brain responsible for exercising critical thought and restraint.

“The same neuroscience helps us understand compulsive overeating. Food, like drugs, stimulates the brain’s reward circuit. Chronic exposure to high-fat and sugary foods is similarly linked with lower D2 levels, and people with lower D2 levels are also more likely to crave such foods. It’s a vicious cycle in which more exposure begets more craving,” says Friedman.

The study, conducted by scientists at the University of Michigan, found that pizza was a great example of this physiological response. Lead author Erica Schulte says the ingredients of pizza “seem to be especially rewarding and do not occur together in foods found in nature … and this may contribute to its association with addictive-like eating behaviors.”

So what was next on the list? Here are the top 20 foods that were found to be most associated with indicators of addiction:

  1. Pizza
  2. Chocolate
  3. Chips
  4. Cookies
  5. Ice cream
  6. French fries
  7. Cheeseburger
  8. Soda (not diet)
  9. Cake
  10. Cheese
  11. Bacon
  12. Fried chicken
  13. Rolls (plain)
  14. Popcorn
  15. Breakfast cereal
  16. Gummy candy
  17. Steak
  18. Muffin
  19. Nuts
  20. Eggs

The key thing to understand here is that we are not at fault. The food industry has altered these foods to be highly rewarding. And even if we try to abstain from them, we’re soaking in advertising messages without even realizing it. On top of that, what makes these addictive foods even more appealing is that they are cheap. It is much more affordable to eat highly processed foods than fresh produce.

But it isn’t all bad news. You can reverse the effects of these kinds of foods.

“Fortunately, our brains are remarkably plastic and sensitive to experience,” Friedman explains. “Although it’s far easier said than done, just limiting exposure to high-calorie foods and recreational drugs would naturally reset our brains to find pleasure in healthier foods and life without drugs.”

The Ammon Foundation believes that when individuals are holistically and strategically supported to build purposeful lives, the likelihood of them maintaining their recovery substantially increases. We provide this support via our two core programs – Ammon Recovery Scholars Program and Ammon Empowerment Workshop Program. To find out more about our programs, or to apply for an educational scholarship, please click here.