Why You Crave Cookies and Not Apples

by Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP on March 1, 2015
Throughout your addiction journey, have you ever wondered why you’re so drawn to certain foods and beverages, especially ones that are grab-and-go, quickly microwaveable, or those that you can score at a drive-through window or convenience store? Funny how it’s not tuna on a bed of greens that you’re rushing to dig into. Instead, sugary, caffeinated sodas, pizza, chips and sweets seem to seduce you with their siren call to eat and keep eating. Succumbing to this junk food temptation is a common problem when you’re in full-on addictive mode, and it contributes to a seriously subpar level of nutrition. After detox, you’re probably still craving these familiar go-to products and even more so, since your original addiction has been eliminated. So, why the special attraction to these foods?

Before launching into an exciting new study that helps explain the food-addiction connection, here’s a quick primer on what drives your brain’s reward center: There are two primal drives, both necessary for survival; these are sex and food. Both are geared to be rewarding and pleasurable. The reward center can handle the level of physical and food stimulation that was characteristic of the Paleolithic era. Sex was fairly straightforward, without the 21st-century “Fifty Shades of Grey” entanglements, as well as countless smartphone-arranged hook-ups. On the other hand, food was simple, when you could find it. The level of pleasure gotten from fruit, vegetables or meat was just enough to satisfy your hunger while gifting you with rewarding memories.
Peering inside the brain’s reward center, you’ll find a well-organized biochemical system equipped to produce feelings of reward. The very thought of tasty food launches a cascade of pleasurable feelings, prompting you to forage for your favorite meal. You feel pleasure because that reward center is secreting dopamine, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that, once bonded with its dopamine receptor, leaves you with that “I can’t wait to eat it” feeling. The pleasure-filled feelings continue until you’re done with the food. Dopamine then interacts with a whole host of hormones and other brain chemicals to produce a sense of satisfaction and satiety. You’re done and can move on with your daily activities.
Flash forward to the present, where we are surrounded by refined, processed and manufactured food and beverage products. They easily outnumber natural whole foods and require little or no preparation. These products are usually highly processed, with added fats and refined carbs (mostly table sugar), as well as preservatives and food coloring (think Cheetos). Now, remember that your reward center is set up to handle berries and broccoli. Enter processed cookies, candies, chips and cakes in family-size boxes and bags. In an addicted brain that’s constantly seeking high-altitude novelty and pleasure now, apples pale in comparison to Little Debbies. Once the brain is bombarded with a tsunami of 24/7 processed foods, changes take place in the reward center that hook you to these products in precisely the same way that drugs or alcohol do. Now you have two addictive processes — your original addiction plus the processed food products.
Now back to that exciting new study: University of Michigan researchers have just published the first trial to identify which foods are the most addictive. Not surprisingly, the scientists found that chocolate (the kind with high levels of refined sugar), ice cream, French fries, cookies, chips, cakes, burgers and pizza were the most addictive, while unprocessed foods such as apples, beans, broccoli, brown rice, chicken and bananas had no addictive qualities.
The Yale Food Addiction Scale, the most widely used tool to assess the presence of addictive eating behavior, was administered to the study’s participants. Results indicate that these processed foods share many characteristics of drugs of abuse, including the persistent desire for processed food and repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to quit. Other shared traits include a rapid rate of absorption (think of “melt in your mouth” ads) and the development of tolerance. Finally, these foods, like drugs, come in highly concentrated doses (there are 10 teaspoons of refined sugar in one 12-ounce can of soda) to achieve the optimal high. Here’s your addiction recovery bottom line when it comes to food:
If you’re still in your addiction, be aware that you’re more than likely not eating well, and probably defaulting to more highly processed foods and beverages. As a result, your brain’s reward center is undergoing changes that will keep you hooked on both your original addiction as well as these food products.
If you’re in recovery, beware of transferring your addictive tendencies to processed foods. This means that in your pursuit of a legal/acceptable high food may seem safe, but you run the risk of “cross-addicting” to processed foods; and you could also potentially overeat enough to run into serious health problems.
In either or both situations, a healthy recovery plan is what you need to replace processed foods with whole foods. Detoxing from processed foods and practicing healthy nutrition habits is the answer. It’ll also support a more sustainable, successful recovery in the long run. You can start by trying out the recipes created by culinary nutritionist Abbie Gellman for Addiction.com, and you can also refer to my book, The Hunger Fix for a simple, basic blueprint to manage your addictive eating. Other options: Find a licensed, registered dietitian in your locale to map out a customized nutrition plan for you, and look to group fellowship like Overeaters Anonymous to augment your healthy eating strategy.
So, it’s true. Not all foods are equally implicated in addictive eating. If you’re ever unsure whether that food in front of you is addictive, just ask yourself: If I eat it will I feel loss of control? And, if I eat it will I feel shame, blame and guilt? If the answer to either or both is “yes,” trust me, it’s addictive. Apple, anyone?
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