The Science of Food Addiction and Recovery
There it is, a slice of hot, cheesy pizza lying on a grease-stained paper plate, waiting to be devoured. One piece, it can’t be that bad for you, right? Look long and hard at it. Now, think twice before taking a bite.
A University of Michigan study, released in February of this year, claims that highly processed foods, like that slice of pizza, could be causing a chemical reaction in the brain similar to addictive drugs.
“Food addiction is not a recognized medical diagnosis,” says Dr. Holly Miller, a contributing journalist on CBS This Morning. This is true, for now. However, there has been considerable research done in this field in the past decade, and opinions are beginning to evolve.
One of the earliest studies fed laboratory rats processed, fatty foods along with healthy foods over a period of time. Researchers noted that once the fatty foods were removed from their diet, the rats showed significant signs of withdrawal, tolerance, cravings and measurable changes in neural chemicals. That sounds an awful lot like kicking a drug or alcohol dependency problem.
The Yale Food Addiction Scale
This most recent University of Michigan study went one step further. Recruiting 500 participants, and having them use the Yale Food Addiction Scale, researchers attempted to discover which foods are the most addictive and which are the least.
The most addictive foods, according to this study are:
2. Potato chips
The least addictive foods are:
4. Brown rice
The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 78 million Americans, one-third of the country’s population, are obese. The health related consequences are devastating. Obesity is linked to all kinds of illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, various types of cancer, strokes and heart disease among others.
Each of the most addictive foods is exceedingly processed. This means they contain added amounts of fat and/or refined carbohydrates or artificial sweeteners. These foods have a high glycemic load, which raise a person’s blood sugar level after they’re eaten. Scientists believe regular consumption of these foods might lead to addictive-eating.
In an interview with Science World Report, Erica Schulte, one of the University of Michigan researchers, said, “This could help 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.”
One of the broader implications, Schulte points to, is how this information could affect public policy. For instance, if these foods are proven to be addictive, should food manufacturers be forced change their marketing techniques, especially toward children? The jury is still out on that question, but the science of food addiction is moving fast and food providers might find themselves having to catch up.
Anyone struggling to recover from drug abuse and alcoholism understands how easy it is to trade one addiction for another. Getting sober is hard enough. Seeking comfort in another addiction, such as smoking cigarettes or eating highly processed foods, can be a natural inclination. It feels like the lesser of two evils. In the long term, though, recovering addicts might want to do themselves a favor, and slowly back away from that slice of pizza. There’s a non-addicting salad just around the corner.
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