Food addiction is a real thing. Find out which eats are the worst triggers, plus how to overcome the temptation.

Written by: Amy Roberts

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The science of food addiction is very real, if so far understudied. What we do know is that some people’s brains chemically react to certain foods in the same way a crack addict’s lights up when he, er, lights up. “It’s been demonstrated that the reward centers of the brain get activated in response to the anticipation of eating a highly rewarding food,” says Jenny Arussi, MS, RD, an expert in unhealthy eating habits and founder of Change My Eating in LA. “And when the food is actually consumed, different parts of the brain are not optimally activated, causing a difficulty feeling satiated and a loss of control over eating.”

For some people, there may also a psychological element; what’s known as emotional eating. “Consuming certain ‘comfort’ food triggers the release of the hormone serotonin, which creates a happy feeling, and a part of you becomes conditioned to linking eating with happiness,” says clinical psychologist Karin Schwartz, PsyD. “As you rely on eating to dispel negative emotions and induce positive ones, you become dependent on food to make you feel happy.”

The most addictive foods, listed next, have a couple things in common: They tend to contain refined carbohydrates (like white sugar and white flour) and fat. But just as not everyone who tries heroin will become a junkie, some people can control themselves around an unattended sheet cake. “It may be that individuals who consume food in an addictive manner find the blood sugar spike from the refined carbs more rewarding than those who don't report addictive-like eating,” says Erica M. Schulte, M.S., a doctoral student at the University of Michigan and lead author of a recent study on food addiction. Without further ado, the most irresistible edibles.

t’s probably no surprise that chocolate tops the list. Not only is it loaded with both sugar and fat, but research shows that it also contains chemicals that strongly affect mood. “It has anandamines, which stimulate the brain in the same way as cannabis (marijuana’s active ingredient); tyramine and phenylethylamine, which have similar effects as amphetamine (speed); and theobromine and caffeine, which act as stimulants,” Schwartz says.

Ah, the intoxicating blend of refined flour (bun or crust) and fat-laden cheese, plus sugar-sweetened tomato sauce or ketchup and greasy pepperoni or ground beef—pizza and cheeseburgers have the ingredients for a high glycemic load, which has been linked to addictive eating. Glycemic load refers to the rate a food’s carbohydrates will spike a person’s blood sugar. “Foods from which refined carbs hit the system very rapidly were uniquely most problematic for people who reported symptoms of food addiction,” says Schulte of the subjects in her study.

A kids’ birthday party is possibly the worst nightmare for a food addict. A little more science to explain why, courtesy of Arussi: The happiness hormone serotonin is produced by the amino acid tryptophan. Consuming sugary foods causes the pancreas to produce a surge of insulin. In turn, insulin causes tryptophan to be more accessible to make serotonin. You end up with a celebration in your brain—until the sugar is used up and you suffer a crash.

Here we have another case of the high glycemic load combo of easily digested carbs and added fat—and that’s before you dip those fries is sugary ketchup. “Fat by itself, or combined with sugar, produces increases in dopamine, a.k.a. the pleasure hormone,” says Arussi. In food addicts, the brain demands more and more dopamine to trigger the good-feeling effects, akin to a tolerance that an alcoholic develops. The result: There’s no way you can eat just one… you need a super-size order or big-grab bag.

Curiously, this one works under a similar premise to the sugar-laden foods, despite the lack of sugar. Foods that taste sweet trick the brain into thinking it’s getting actual sugar. When no sugar is delivered, the brain sends a signal demanding those carbs it was promised. Unfortunately, drinking more diet soda doesn’t help (and actually makes it worse), so you may end up overeating your meal. And if your order includes any of the aforementioned foods—you see where we’re going here.

Food addiction is very hard to treat, given that trigger foods are always available and hard to avoid. Generally, seeing a nutritionist and/or psychologist is recommended to help you get a handle on the how and why, and game-plan your next steps. “The goal is to find healthier coping mechanisms to create this feeling that food may be providing temporarily,” says Schwartz. To avoid the hormone spikes caused by trigger foods, Arussi recommends avoiding those refined carbs and instead balancing meals and snacks to include lean protein and unrefined carbs.