It’s pretty easy to identify the foods that are addictive. They are the ones that people “can’t stop eating.” This is kind of a circular definition. Addictive literally means that you can’t stop doing something, even when you rationally know that you want to stop it, or that it’s harming you.
But what makes addictive foods different from others? Why does a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or a Krispy Kreme hook you in a way that plain steak or steamed broccoli don’t?
Nobody “can’t stop eating” steak. Maybe you can eat a big steak when you’re really hungry. Many people certainly love the taste and enjoy eating steak. But once you feel full, you’re full. When you’re full you don’t feel a powerful urge to eat more and more steak. A lot of foods are like this – especially whole, natural foods. When was the last time you binged uncontrollably on plain, unsalted boiled potatoes or steamed whitefish?
On the other hands, look at the foods that people can’t resist: chips, pizza, donuts, candy bars, ice cream, pastry, cake, etc. What are the common features of these foods?
- They are energy dense. They are relatively high in calories per gram or ounce.
- They combine carbohydrates and fat in a single food. The carbs may be sugar or starch or both.
- They are low in protein and fiber.
- They usually contain highly processed ingredients: refined sugar, flour, and/or concentrated oils and fats.
- They are sweet and/or salty. They often have strong natural or artificial flavors that make them extra pleasurable to eat.
These traits make food addictive. The more of them a food has, the more habit-forming it is.
Food scientists and engineers understand this. They scientifically taste test foods to see which ones people like more. Look at a typical appetizer at a chain restaurant. For example, take the legendary “Bloomin’ Onion” from Outback Steakhouse. It’s breaded (carbs) and deep fried (fat). The onion on the inside and the creamy (fat) dipping sauce are mildly sweet (sugar). The dish is salty and mildly spicy, and the dipping sauce has a smoky flavor with spice as well. It’s a perfect storm of all of the addictive factors listed above. And it’s hardly unique – many, even most, restaurant appetizers combine the above factors in various ways. And why shouldn’t they? The restaurant is a business that wants to give customers pleasure so they feel happy with their meal and return to spend more money.
High energy density makes foods desirable to the brain at an unconscious level. The starch and sugar digests rapidly and provides a quick dopamine hit to the brain. The fat is pleasurable to eat and also signals to the brain that this is a “good” food. These traits make you want to keep eating the food to keep the pleasure flowing.
Low protein and fiber trick the digestive system and brain. They make the natural “stop eating, I’m full” signal take a long time to activate. That means that you can keep eating and never feel satisfied or full. As the potato chip ad says: “betcha can’t eat just one.”
Let’s look at the opposite case: foods that are satisfying but not addictive. Imagine a bodybuilder’s meal of plain grilled chicken breast and steamed broccoli. If you’re very hungry, this meal will taste good and fill you up. The protein in the chicken and the fiber in the broccoli guarantee that. However, once you’ve eaten enough, you don’t feel an insatiable urge for more chicken and broccoli.
What are the common features of non-addictive foods? These features are essentially the opposite to their counterparts above.
- They are low-energy per gram or ounce.
- They are relatively high in protein or fiber.
- They are relatively low in fat and non-fiber carbohydrates.
- They are in or close to their natural state.
When you eat these foods, you gradually feel full in a natural way. You don’t crave another bowl of low-fat cottage cheese or steamed broccoli after you eat a reasonable-sized portion. Even when you do overeat a bit, you notice it quickly and stop.
For most of us, the path to a healthy weight and body composition is through whole, natural foods and away from addictive foods. Some people are able to moderate their consumption of addictive foods. These are the “naturally thin” folks who can take one taste of a dessert or a single square of dark chocolate and be satisfied.
For everyone else, the solution to addiction is simple: to quit.