Ever more research is showing that food addiction can be a powerful force that strongly influences eating choices. Much like substance-abuse disorders, neuroscience research is showing how consuming certain foods trigger reward centers in the brain much like addictive drugs do.
The commonalities between the two – substance-abuse and food addiction – are quite striking. And what drives both has everything to do with the level of processing.
This is what researchers from the University of Michigan’s Food and Addiction Science & Treatment Lab concluded in a recent study:
“Addictive substances are rarely in their natural state, but have been altered or processed in a manner that increases their abuse potential…addictive substances are altered to increase the rate at which the addictive agent is absorbed into the bloodstream.”
And as Michael Moss detailed in his investigation of major food companies, food processing involves deliberate manipulation of salt, sugar and fat content to maximize taste to keep consumers coming back for more.
One example is sugar. Highly processed, sugary foods, compared to naturally occurring foods, are more likely to induce a blood sugar spike. This blood sugar spike is important because its these high glucose levels that activate areas of the brain that are involved with addiction. (See Robert Lustig’s work for more on this topic. Or better yet, just watch the documentary Fed Up. It’s now on Netflix.)
Let’s go back to that University of Michigan study. Researchers conducted two separate studies using two different samples, but asked the same basic question: are certain types of food more “problematic” than others (in terms of propensity to over-indulge beyond control)?
The first study included 120 undergraduate students at the University of Michigan. About two-thirds were female and almost 75% were Caucasian. Students were asked a series of hypothetical questions and showed a series of pictures of different foods to see which foods students indicated as most likely to be consumed in an addictive way.
Here’s the list. Some of the top, most-problematic foods aren’t too surprising. They’re all the “guilty pleasures” we think of.
Most importantly, as the authors concluded, “highly processed foods with added levels of fat and/or refined carbohydrates (like white flour and sugar), were most likely to be associated with addictive-like eating behaviors”
The researchers also conducted a similar exercise with a much broader sample of 400 people ranging in age from 18 to 65 years old. Not too shocking, they found very similar results. Many of the same foods indicated by students as the most addictive were similar to those in the second study.
Researchers made a similar conclusion based on the results of the second study, “processing, fat, and GL [glycemic load] [were] predictive of whether a food was associated with problematic, addictive-like eating behavior”
Interestingly, the researchers also found that individuals with an elevated BMI [body mass index] reported greater difficulties with highly processed foods. Also, men indicated more problems with controlled eating when consuming some unprocessed foods like steak, nuts, and cheese compared to women.
So what’s the main point?
Well, I think there are a couple important points. First, food addiction is a real thing. People perceive certain foods to be more problematic than others. And this perception is equally as important as the actual biological response. And second, the level of processing of food matters. If you’re trying to exert more control over your eating choices a good place to start would be to eat as much real food as possible.