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Next time someone claims to be a chocoholic. Recognize they might be telling the truth. A new study shows that while pizza, French fries and, of course, chocolate are hard to resist, they may actually really be somewhat addictive.
Previous studies showed that highly processed foods, or those that have refined carbohydrates (like white flour and sugar) or added fat, seem to trigger eating behavior the seem addictive. Likewise, unprocessed foods that do not have added fat or refine carbohydrates, such as brown rice, do not seem to cause addictive behavior.
Do all refined carbohydrates and highly processed foods create a similar reaction? No, according to a University of Michigan Health and Behavioral Sciences study published in PLOS One that examined which foods may actually be the most addictive. The Michigan study is one of the first to implicate certain foods, but it only uses students so it may not correlate to the population overall. However, a lot of college age readers will undoubtedly be disappointed to find that chocolate, French fries and pizza – staples in the diets of many – had the most addictive response.
The University of Michigan research team found that body mass index (BMI) impacts the likelihood of overindulging. They found that people with a high BMI were more likely to over eat processed foods, including the three identified as most addictive. They did not identify whether being addicted to one or more of the foods led to a higher BMI (although overeating them clearly does), or whether the BMI is already high so they are more likely to overindulge in them.
One part of the study involved 120 undergraduates aged 18 to 23, who were recruited using flyers on campus or through the school’s Introductory Psychology subject pool. Those recruited via flyer received $20 for participating and participants from the Psych pool received course credit. Two-thirds were female, and 72.5 percent of participants were Caucasian. The students’ BMIs ranged from underweight to obese.
The students were asked to complete the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) and then to indicate which foods, out of a list of 35 with differing nutritional composition, were most tied to addictive-like eating behaviors. Using the same 35 foods, a second study investigated which food attributes (e.g., fat grams) could be related to addictive-like eating behavior. It also explored the influence of individual differences for this association.
Pizza was found to be the most addictive food, followed by chocolate, potato chips, and cookies. The least addictive foods on the list were brown rice, followed by apples, beans, and carrots. Most of the foods identified as problems were those with higher glycemic loads, which can significantly raise glucose levels in the blood.
Human clinical studies equated the criteria for dependence on other substances with substance dependence on certain foods. Accordingly, people often claim that they could not resist eating the entire chocolate bar, pizza or whatever. The studies show that these comfort foods may be mentally associated with rewards.
The researchers hope this is a first step towards identifying specific foods or properties of foods that trigger an addictive response. This could help change the way we approach obesity treatment. It also should vindicate people who have always claimed that pizza, fries and chocolate are addictive.
By Dyanne Weiss