Much like cocaine's synthetic little brother crack, processed foods like refined sugars and added fats are capable of creating a surge in our brains' reward system unlike anything that the natural world can create. And as with crack, many people begin to crave these foods with the zeal of a junkie.
Deep down, everyone kind of knows that there is a slightly terrifying but very enjoyable link between food and addiction, specifically when it comes to dishes and products that are packed with sugar, fat, and salt.
Chefs have know this for a long time, and science is slowly confirming that sugar and fat are indeed addictive. Psychologists at the University of Michigan have corroborated this link in a new study titled "Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load." And its authors have even narrowed down the culprits to foods like "chocolate, pizza, and French fries."
"Individuals with symptoms of food addiction or with higher body mass indexes reported greater problems with highly processed foods, suggesting some may be particularly sensitive to the possible 'rewarding' properties of these foods," said Erica Schulte, a University of Michigan psychology doctoral student and the study's lead author in a press statement.
Conversely, unprocessed foods "with no added fat or refined carbohydrates like brown rice and salmon," were not found to be correlated with what the research team called "addictive-like eating behavior."
The study also concluded that food seems to use the same biological mechanisms as drugs. "Not all foods are equally implicated in addictive-like eating behavior, and highly processed foods," according to the article, "which may share characteristics with drugs of abuse (e.g. high dose, rapid rate of absorption) appear to be particularly associated with 'food addiction.'"
But unlike crack cocaine, you need food to survive. This reality makes it complicated for self-diagnosed food addicts to know if their craving is just hunger, hanger, or straight-up addiction, which is why the University of Michigan team says neurological data is the next frontier in studying food addiction and its link to obesity.
"This is a first step towards identifying specific foods, and properties of foods, which can trigger this addictive response," she said. "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."
So while you may wish to compartmentalize your food, booze, and smoking habits, for your brain it's basically all the same.