A new study from the University of Michigan and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai confirms what’s long been suspected— highly processed foods like chocolate, pizza and French fries are the most addictive. Researchers believe their findings may pave the way for more effective treatments for obesity.
The study, published in PLOS ONE, found that individuals with symptoms of food addiction or with higher body mass indexes reported greater problems with highly processed foods, suggesting a sensitivity to the possible “reward” properties of these foods, lead author Erica Schulte, a U-M psychology doctoral student, said in a news release.
Researchers followed a total of 500 participants in two separate study groups.
Previous studies have shown that highly processed foods, or foods with added fat or refined carbohydrates (like white flour and sugar) may be capable of triggering addictive-like eating behavior. This study is the first to specifically study which foods may be implicated in “food addiction.”
Researchers found that unprocessed foods with no added fat or refined carbohydrates, like brown rice and salmon, were not associated with addictive-like eating behavior.
"If properties of some foods are associated with addictive eating for some people, this may impact nutrition guidelines, as well as public policy initiatives such as marketing these foods to children," Schulte said.
Researchers noted that this is the first step to identifying specific foods and properties of foods which can trigger an addictive response.
“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,” Nicole Avena, an assistant professor of pharmacology and systems therapeutics at Icahn said in the news release.
Moving forward, research should examine whether addictive foods, like drugs of abuse, are capable of triggering changes in brain circuitry and behavior, authors added.