4 Most “Addictive” Foods — and How You Can Fight Cravings
Certain foods may trigger your brain’s reward systems, making you crave more. But smart swaps and better choices can help you avoid unhealthy eating patters.
Just the other day, a patient told me she had eaten a full meal: a burger, french fries, and a soda. Then, not even two hours later, she was hungry again. She craved something sweet.
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After all of those calories, how could she still be hungry, she asked? And she’s not alone.
In overweight and obese patients especially, it turns out the brain’s reward processing system for food is similar to the brain’s mechanisms related to substance abuse. If unchecked cravings affect you, you might need to make a conscious effort to control them.
Below are four of the most “addictive” foods — and tips on how to curb your cravings.
Why you crave them: Potatoes have a high glycemic index. That’s a technical way of saying the carbs in potatoes really raise your blood sugar levels — quickly. They also stimulate the reward centers in your brain. You eat a big plate of French fries, and then you want more. Or you crave other high-glycemic foods such as candy bars.
The sudden increase in blood sugar makes your pancreas work in overdrive to secrete enough insulin. This insulin picks up and transports the sugar in your blood to various cells throughout the body. Within an hour of eating a high-glycemic meal, the insulin has done its job, and you’re left with low blood sugar. You feel hungry even though you just ate an hour ago.
French fries come with a double whammy, because they’re usually loaded with salt. Like sugar, salt stimulates receptors in your brain that basically say, “Mmm, this food is tasty.”
How to break the cycle: Eat potatoes with the skin on. The extra fiber in the potato skin will help slow digestion and keep your blood sugar in balance. Even better, swap out white potatoes for sweet potatoes, which are lower on the glycemic index and higher in micronutrients. And get your flavor with herbs and spices instead of added salt.
Why you crave it: The sugar in soda stimulates the reward system in your brain, too. And over time, you need larger and sweeter amounts to trigger the same level of reward. One can might do the trick today, but before you know it, you’re drinking several.
Consider this: An average 12-ounce soda contains 10 teaspoons of sugar. On its own, that exceeds the American Heart Association’s recommendation for daily added sugar.
Think diet soda is better? Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar. They actually may encourage your craving for sweets.
How to break the cycle: Next time you want a carbonated drink, opt for sparkling water without sugar or artificial sweeteners. And don’t just substitute sugary snacks or sugar in your coffee and tea. To really kick the sugar habit, sometimes you need a clean break.
Why you crave it: Highly processed foods — most pizza included — have been associated with addiction-like eating behaviors. The heavily processed grains in many crusts are pretty high on the glycemic index. The way they’re processed removes the bran and germ from the grain. That makes the crust easier to digest, which causes your blood sugar to rapidly rise. You end up with that same, familiar blood sugar roller coaster.
How to break the cycle: Try pizza with 100 percent whole grain crust, either made from scratch or at restaurants that offer it. You can also make specialty crusts — made from ingredients such as cauliflower. And don’t skimp on the veggies!
Why you crave it: The creamy satisfaction ice cream provides was hardwired into our brains years ago when our ancestors had few calorie-dense food options. They adapted to find fat-rich food rewarding as a means of survival.
Now, all we have to do is go to our nearest drive-thru to find calorie-dense food. But the reward system in our brain still tells us we enjoy certain types of fat. Ice cream has it — along with plenty of stimulating sugar, too.
How to break the cycle: Try to limit the fats found in animal products and opt for plant-based, unsaturated fats instead. Avocados and olive oil are great sources, for example. And be wary of “low-fat” ice cream options. A lot of manufacturers simply add more sugar and additives to replace the fat.
Ultimately the best way to curb your cravings is to avoid processed foods. Choose low-glycemic whole foods, which will help you control the added fat, sugar and salt.
Katherine Arlinghaus from the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute contributed to this post.