Why are some foods—like chocolate, pizza, and French fries—more addictive than others—like brown rice or salmon?
The answer may have something to do with how foods are processed, say researchers.
The findings of a new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that methods used to curb smoking, drinking, or drug abuse may also work in combating “food addiction” and the growing obesity epidemic.
Despite the fact that highly processed foods are usually more tasty, researchers still don’t know whether these types of foods can elicit addiction-like responses in humans, or which ones are most to blame, says Ashley Gearhardt, assistant professor of psychology at University of Michigan.
Unprocessed foods, with no added fat or refined carbohydrates, are not associated with addictive-like eating behavior.
People with symptoms of food addiction or with higher body mass indexes report greater problems with highly processed foods, suggesting some may be particularly sensitive to the possible “rewarding” properties of these foods, says psychology doctoral student and lead author Erica Schulte.
“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.”
“This is a first step towards identifying specific foods, and properties of foods, which can trigger this addictive response,” says Nicole Avena, assistant professor of pharmacology and systems therapeutics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
“This could help change the way we approach obesity treatment. 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.”
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*Image of “hot chocolate” via Shutterstock