What's your favorite food? You know -- the one you tell people you're addicted to. Salt and vinegar potato chips? Pickles? Chocolate? Oh yeah, chocolate. We all have our weaknesses. But can you actually be addicted to a food -- physically addicted?
Experts say "yes." In fact, studies show that some foods actually have a narcotic-like effect on our brains. So, when you occasionally overdo it on fast food or cheesecake, remember that it's not just a lack of willpower on your part. It's a chemical reaction.
What are the 10 most addictive foods? Well, that's a matter of opinion, of course. But our guess is that many of these would make your list. Some are downright indulgent, while others fill needs that have little to do with our taste buds.
Pasta, Bread, Potatoes and Rice
The advantages of a low-carb diet may be getting a lot of publicity these days, but plenty of us still lust after piles of pasta and loads of French-fried potatoes. If you dream about tortellini, fresh sushi rolls, buttermilk biscuits and potato skins, you aren't alone in thinking carbs may be the key to happiness at mealtime.
Eating carbohydrates (more on sugar later) produces a natural, physical high caused by the release of dopamine. The human body likes that happy feeling -- a lot -- and starts craving more of it. Both cocaine use and carb consumption have a similar effect on the brain's pleasure center. Actually, if the idea of eating a chocolate cupcake (mac and cheese or a donut) ever jumped into your head while you were contemplating your taxes or thinking about the dirty laundry, that was your brain bushwhacking your good judgment with a food craving. Can you crash and start going through carb withdrawal? You sure can. Some symptoms include anxiety, headache and irritability.
Chips and Other Salty Snacks
Salt occurs naturally in many of the foods we eat, but humans add more -- plenty more. Salty is one of the basic tastes perceived by the taste buds, and it can work in conjunction with sweet and sour tastes to bring new dimensions to the flavors in food. Eating too much salt may eventually hinder your body's ability to get rid of the excess, though.
Like dependence on alcohol or cigarettes, there's a psychological -- as well as a physiological -- component to salt addiction. You crave salt in your diet because it tastes good, and that pleasurable feeling reacts with the reward center of your brain, making it hard to control your salt consumption, even when you realize you should. It gets worse. After ingesting too much salt, your kidneys try to dump the excess through your urine. When your kidneys can't keep up, plan B is to store the surplus salt between your cells for a while. If you're a chronic salt abuser, your kidneys may never catch up. This leads to problems like potassium deficiency, water retention, high blood pressure and even congestive heart failure.
If you're in the habit of throwing salt around your dinner plate and snacking on pretzels, chips and other salty munchies, face it -- you're probably a salt-aholic. Try to start cutting back now, and in the meantime, eat a banana or two a day. Bananas help neutralize some of the negative effects of excess salt in your system by replenishing your body's stores of potassium.
That pack of gum in your pocket may have been an impulse purchase designed to keep your breath fresh or even to forestall the urge to smoke. A foil wrapped stick of gum looks pretty innocent, we have to admit. A little vigorous mastication never hurt anybody, right? Well, it's not quite that simple.
Although you don't swallow it (we hope), habitual gum chewing can involve some of the same dependency issues as food addictions, especially if you're hooked on sugary gums as opposed to the sugar-free variety. We aren't talking about nicotine gum, here, just the garden variety gum you're likely to find at the checkout counter of most grocery stores.
It turns out that many activities can become compulsive and somewhat addictive, particularly if they're acting as surrogates for other addictions. If you chew gum when you really want a breakfast pastry (bad), the gum may end up being a better choice, but one that produces anxiety when you can't refresh your wad during the Monday morning meeting. There's also the reassuring feeling that comes from chewing on something -- anything. If all your pencils (and your nails) look liked they've been gnawed on, you know what we mean. If you're a gum chewer, choose a nice sugar free brand and adopt a sedate chewing tempo that won't cause jaw problems later.
You hate it on your thighs, but love it in ice cream. Once upon a time, fat was a good thing. A nice pad of fat around the middle helped early man get through the harsh winter when food was scarce. Fast forward to last weekend, and a predisposition to indulge in nachos, greasy hot wings and pork rinds may have some of you waddling the dog around the park instead of setting a brisk, heart-healthy pace. Fat is another food that affects the pleasure center of the brain. When coupled with salt or sugar (or both), it packs a double whammy that can be irresistible. The fast food industry excels at developing menu options that create the most addictive blends of fat, sugar and salt. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Foods Advertised as Non-fat, Low-fat or Sugar-free
Oh no! The one bastion of good-for-you-food may be almost as addictive as the other baddies on this list. Here's how it works: You decide to be responsible and eat low-fat crackers instead of the fat-laden alternatives. What's the result? You end up eating twice as many crackers (or more) because you think the low-fat brand you've selected is a healthier choice with a little caloric wiggle room. Actually, low-fat foods are just that, low in fat. There's no guarantee that they're nutritious and also low in sodium and questionable additives. In fact, many foods advertised as low-fat contain increased amounts of sodium to add flavor.
If you automatically reach for low-fat or nonfat options at the market, you may be hooked on the idea that you can cheat the food pyramid with some ingredient sleight-of-hand instead of adopting more responsible eating habits. Ouch. This is a sneaky trap, and frankly, pretty unfair. After a few days of being good and eating low-fat alternatives, many of us start feeling deprived and end up binging on high-calorie indulgences anyway. Then, the cycle starts all over again.
There's a reason so many people call themselves "chocoholics." When we eat chocolate (and other sweet or fatty foods), it releases serotonin into the brain. Serotonin affects the brain cells related to mood, appetite, social behavior and even sexual desire. So, when we eat chocolate, we actually feel happier. Then, we crave that feeling when we're not eating chocolate.
In many women, these chocolate cravings actually occur on a monthly basis, suggesting a hormonal link. Many people report craving chocolate -- and that happy feeling -- during episodes of seasonal affective disorder and premenstrual syndrome. When you claim you love chocolate, you may really mean it.
The White Stuff -- Sugar
Beyond the allure of your favorite desserts like ice cream, cupcakes and pies, the sugar in just about any food can be addictive. Believe it or not, sugar addiction begins at birth. Think about it -- human breast milk is very sweet, so even as babies we associate sweetness with happiness and satisfaction.
Here's what happens when you consume sugar. When sugar enters the bloodstream, blood sugar levels (obviously) rise. This causes the pancreas to release insulin. The insulin converts this sugar into energy -- a "sugar high." Unfortunately, excess insulin also encourages fat storage. So, the more sugar you eat, the more insulin you produce, and the more likely you are to gain weight.
A Princeton University study found that rats that were fed sugar became anxious when the sugar was removed from their diets. Some of the rats even experienced withdrawal symptoms like chattering teeth and the shakes.
Here's something you might not know about cheese (and why it has such a hold on some of us). A study in 1981 found traces of morphine in cow's milk. That's right -- morphine, the opiate. It's definitely in tiny amounts, but it's there. Turns out cows -- and humans -- can produce morphine in their bodies. Researchers believe it's in the milk to help a baby bond with its mother.
The other addictive ingredient in cheese is casein. Casein is a protein that, during digestion, releases substances called casomorphins, which also have an opiate effect.
Caffeine and Caffeinated Beverages
If you're a coffee drinker, then you probably won't argue that caffeine is addictive. The more caffeine you ingest during the day, the more likely you'll suffer withdrawal symptoms when that caffeine is taken away. We're not just talking about coffee, either. You'll also find caffeine in tea, energy drinks, soda and even chocolate.
Because caffeine is a mild stimulant, you feel more energized after having some. But if you skip your regular intake, you might find yourself feeling sluggish or headachy. That's because caffeine actually prevents headaches by blocking the brain receptors that dilate blood vessels, the cause of that headache. In fact, some aspirin and other pain relief products contain caffeine for that very reason.
Doctors report that caffeine withdrawal symptoms can start as soon as 12 hours after your last cup of Joe, and they can last as long as a week!
Most Junk/Fast Foods
A March 2010 study involving rats showed that, given unlimited access to unhealthy food like bacon, candy and fast food, they gained weight very quickly. That in itself isn't too surprising. What we found interesting was that the rats began compulsively eating the junk food -- even when they received an electric shock to their feet if they ate more than they were allowed. This may not sound like you, but it might not be a bad idea to think twice when you head out for a fast food fix.
Our advice? Moderation is key -- with all the food on these pages. What's life without a little indulgence? Enjoy eating your favorite foods, but stay healthy. For more on food and diet, check out the links on the next page.
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