It’s not your imagination. There are foods that give you such a rush of pleasure from the very first bite that your brain screams for more—making it very hard to stop eating them once you start. That’s because they’ve been engineered with the right combination of refined carbohydrates like white flour and sugar and added fat to deliver a big glycemic load—a rush of blood sugar into your system, which triggers your brain’s reward center and makes you want more. In a recent study, food addiction researcher Nicole Avena, PhD, identified the most addictive foods. Unsurprisingly, the ones that top the list are highly processed and have more sugar and fat per bite, with far less fiber to slow down digestion, than unprocessed foods found in nature.
Do you need to avoid addictive foods altogether? Maybe, if they truly cause you trouble, says Avena. But for others, awareness that they can cause problems and strategies to make them less problematic may do the trick. Here’s what she has to say about the biggest troublemakers.
“The more processed the pizza, the worse it is,” says Avena. “Try to eat pizza with whole, fresh ingredients and go easy on the cheese, because it is so highly processed. Try to use a less-processed crust if possible. If making it at home, you can play around with more healthful recipes like using cauliflower crusts.” This cauliflower crust pizza recipe packs so much flavor, you won't miss delivery.
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To lower the binge bar, darker chocolate is better. “Milk chocolate contains a lot of fat, so try to eat darker chocolate,” she says. “It may taste bitter at first, but after a while, as you adjust your tastes, that won't be the case, and the milk chocolate will actually taste too sweet!”
“I tend to put cookies on the list of things to try to avoid,” says Avena, noting that it’s just too hard to find one that isn’t just a baked disk of addictive ingredients. Your best bet is baking your own because you can control the ingredients and cut back the sugar, she says. These chocolate chunk and walnut oatmeal cookies are a more wholesome choice than store-bought.
No surprise here. Chips, along with other crispy snack foods like Goldfish crackers (for the parents out there), are highly processed. They're also salty and airy, so they not only give you that pleasant rush, but also don’t really fill you up, so you just keep eating them. Looking for a lower-salt variety can help curtail your consumption.
Small portions are key here, so buy single servings rather than pints or more, says Avena. “I suggest people don't even buy it and go out for ice cream at a shop if they have to have it. That way if you have a craving, you have to get dressed, get in your car, and drive there to get it, rather than simply going to the kitchen and opening the freezer.” Better yet, make your own healthy frozen alternative: dairy-free banana-chocolate ice cream, which gets its creaminess from blended frozen bananas.
You can’t have your cake without fighting an urge to eat more, too. For this one, it’s a matter of limiting your exposure and learning to say no, says Avena. “You aren’t a party pooper because you don’t want a co-worker’s birthday cake. You just aren’t hungry for cake.”
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Fast-food fries will always be addicting, and that’s the point. For French fries that are easier to eat in reasonable amounts, look for minimal processing and less added fat (and in some cases sugar!). That’s true for sweet potato fries, too, despite their healthier halo, says Avena. “If you can make your own sweet potato fries at home and bake instead of fry them, you are on the right track.” These spicy sweet potato wedges are baked in the oven and just 153 calories per serving.
Certain regional fast-food restaurants sell sliders by the bagful, making this already unhealthy, saturated fat-laden food an addictive one as well. “We’re not talking about a burger from a steakhouse or nice restaurant; you don’t eat many of those in one sitting,” she says. “Making your own burger is best. If you can ditch the bun and eat it naked, then that is your best bet. The idea is to get rid of as much processed parts of the meal as you can.” Eating too many burgers won't just widen your waistline; a diet heavy in red meat is also linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer, kidney failure, diverticulitis, type 2 diabetes, and other health conditions. Try this recipe for a barbecue turkey burger instead.
The main culprit here is sugar, especially if it’s combined with a low-fiber flake or puff. “Pay attention to labels,” says Avena. The Environmental Working Group, which recently ranked 1,556 cereals based on their sugar content, recommends looking for a brand with no more than 4 grams of sugar per serving. In 2018, the new Nutrition Facts label will also have to list the amount of added sugar, along with the percentage of Daily Value of it, which will make it easier to weed out addicting offenders.
It’s not the chicken you can’t stop eating. It’s the crispy, fatty, salty, deep-fried breading that encapsulates it. “Try to get it baked,” says Avena. Or pick off the fried part (at least after the first piece) to quell the craving to keep eating.