Finally, science is agreeing that your craving for fries and ice cream can be endless.
A new study from the University of Michigan confirms what Nutella-lovers have long claimed: highly-processed foods like pizza, chocolate, and fries are the most addictive ones.
According to Dr. Nicole Avena of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who has been studying food addiction for 15 years, “Several studies really do suggest that highly-palatable, highly-processed foods can produce behaviors and changes in the brain that one would use to diagnose an addiction, like drugs and alcohol.”
The Huffington Post points out, however, that the studies that have concluded that these foods can be addictive have generally used animals as their test subjects. Clinical studies in humans have determined that some individuals meet the criteria for substance dependence on food; food addiction in humans has yet to be thoroughly researched.
In her latest study, Avena investigates the contentious topic of food addiction, specifically the mental and physical impact of consuming highly-processed, fatty, sugary foods (for example, “munchies” like pizza, potato chips, and chocolate), in order to suggest that attitudes and behaviors involving food can affect the human brain the same way a drug does. Avena’s extensive research found that in some individuals, the consumption of this type of food closely resembles drug addiction patterns.
As a part of her project, Avena had more than 500 participants identify their “problem” foods, or foods with which they most struggle to eat moderately. “Problem” foods were determined using the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which prompts individuals with statements such as, "I eat to the point where I feel physically ill" or "I spend a lot of time feeling sluggish or fatigued from overeating." Participants’ answers to these questions help them to determine which foods are their biggest challenges.
Then, using participants’ answers, Avena averaged the scores for each food type, and ranked them on a seven-point scale from most problematic to least problematic (with one being the least problematic and seven being the most). Findings showed that pizza, chocolate, chips, cookies, and ice cream were the most problematic foods, whereas cucumbers, carrots, beans (no sauce), apples, and brown rice (plain, no sauce) were the least offensive.
Okay, so perhaps this chart doesn't come as a complete surprise. Yet, Avena’s findings are the first to scientifically show a correlation between the foods that caused people the most mental distress and physical discomfort and those that are highly processed or are high in added fats and sugars. Notably, these foods are also have the greatest levels of glycemic load, which determines a food’s potential to raise one’s blood sugar level.
Today, food addiction has yet to be officially recognized as an addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Avena claims that her recent work is the first clinical study to actually assess and analyze the relationship between how people eat certain foods and the ingredients of that food.
"If someone feels they are addicted to food, there really is no diagnosis a medical doctor could give to that person,” Avena explained. "This study is helping advance the literature so that we can help people who have addictive-like eating disorders."
She also said that she hopes her research will help with future treatment of obesity and eating disorders.
"This could help change the way we approach obesity treatment,” Avena said in a previous statement about her study. "It may not be a simple matter of 'cutting back' on certain foods, but rather, adopting methods used to curtail smoking, drinking and drug use."
Erica Schulte, a U-M psychology doctoral student and the study’s lead author, further explained, "If properties of some foods are associated with addictive eating for some people, this may impact nutrition guidelines, as well as public policy initiatives such as marketing these foods to children."
While we cannot rationally attribute all of our late-night munchies to a legitimate addiction, a greater understanding of how our bodies and minds react to particular foods can ultimately allow us to better control those chili cheese fry binges...maybe.