By Adda Bjarnadottir Authority Nutrition
Up to 20% of people may suffer from food addiction or addictive-like eating behavior (1).
This number is even higher among people with obesity.
Food addiction involves being addicted to food in the same way as drug addicts are addicted to drugs (2, 3).
People who have food addiction are unable to control their consumption of certain foods.
However, people don’t just get addicted to any food. Some foods are much more likely to cause symptoms of addiction than others.
Foods That Can Cause Addictive-Like Eating
Researchers at the University of Michigan studied addictive-like eating in 518 participants (4).
They used the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) as a reference. This is the most commonly used tool to assess food addiction.
All participants got a list of 35 foods, both processed and unprocessed.
They rated how likely they were to experience problems with each of the 35 foods, on a scale from 1 (not at all addictive) to 7 (extremely addictive).
In this study, 7–10% of participants were diagnosed with full-blown food addiction.
What’s more, 92% of participants had addictive-like eating behavior towards some foods. They repeatedly had the desire to quit eating them, but were unable to (4).
Below, you’ll see the results about which foods were the most and least addictive.
Bottom Line: In a recent study, 92% of participants had addictive-like eating behavior towards certain foods. 7-10% had full-blown food addiction.
The 18 Most Addictive Foods
Not surprisingly, most of the foods rated as addictive were processed foods. These foods were usually high in sugar, fat or both.
The number following each food is the average score given in the study mentioned above, on a scale from 1 (not at all addictive) to 7 (extremely addictive).
- Pizza (4.01)
- Chocolate (3.73)
- Chips (3.73)
- Cookies (3.71)
- Ice cream (3.68)
- French fries (3.60)
- Cheeseburgers (3.51)
- Soda (not diet) (3.29)
- Cake (3.26)
- Cheese (3.22)
- Bacon (3.03)
- Fried chicken (2.97)
- Rolls (plain) (2.73)
- Popcorn (buttered) (2.64)
- Breakfast cereal (2.59)
- Gummy candy (2.57)
- Steak (2.54)
- Muffins (2.50)
Bottom Line: The 18 most addictive foods were also the most processed ones, with the highest amounts of fat and added sugar.
The 17 Least Addictive Foods
The least addictive foods were mostly whole, unprocessed foods.
- Cucumbers (1.53)
- Carrots (1.60)
- Beans (no sauce) (1.63)
- Apples (1.66)
- Brown rice (1.74)
- Broccoli (1.74)
- Bananas (1.77)
- Salmon (1.84)
- Corn (no butter or salt) (1.87)
- Strawberries (1.88)
- Granola bar (1.93)
- Water (1.94)
- Crackers (plain) (2.07)
- Pretzels (2.13)
- Chicken breast (2.16)
- Eggs (2.18)
- Nuts (2.47)
Bottom Line: The least addictive foods were almost all whole, unprocessed foods.
What Makes Junk Food Addictive?
Addictive-like eating behavior involves a lot more than just a lack of willpower. There are biochemical reasons why some people lose control over their consumption.
It has repeatedly been linked to processed foods, especially those high in added sugar and/or fat (4, 5, 6, 7).
Processed foods are usually engineered to be “hyperpalatable” – so they taste super good.
They also contain high amounts of calories, and cause major blood sugar imbalances. These are known factors that can cause food cravings.
However, the biggest contributor to addictive-like eating behavior is your brain.
The brain has a reward center, which lights up and starts secreting dopamine and other feel-good chemicals when we eat.
This reward center explains why most of us “enjoy” eating. It makes sure that we eat enough food to get all the energy and nutrients that we need.
Eating processed junk food releases massive amounts of feel-good chemicals, compared to unprocessed foods. This yields a much more powerful “reward” in the brain (8, 9, 10).
Your brain then seeks more reward by causing cravings for these hyper-rewarding foods. This can possibly lead to a vicious cycle, called addictive-like eating behavior or food addiction (11, 12).
Bottom Line: Processed foods can cause blood sugar imbalances and cravings. Eating junk food also makes your brain release feel-good chemicals, which can lead to even more cravings.
Take Home Message
Food addiction and addictive-like eating behavior are serious problems that certain foods are more likely to trigger.
This is yet another reason to base your diet mostly on eating whole, single-ingredient foods.
They release an appropriate amount of feel-good chemicals, while ensuring that you’re not overeating.
In the end, you should control what foods you eat — not the other way around.