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⏪ Rewind: Addictive attributes of food

This cross-sectional study suggests that food is more addictive when it’s more processed, has a higher glycemic index, or contains more added fat or added refined carbs.

Background

Among the various factors that contribute to obesity — including increased energy intake, availability and access to large portions, and decreased physical activity — food processing, fat content, and glycemic load have all been a focus point at some time. Do these aspects of a food contribute to its addictive potential?

The study

This cross-sectional study involved 404 participants (from two separate studies) who were asked to rate foods ranging from broccoli to ice cream for their addictive potential.

The Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), which uses the DSM-IV criteria for substance dependence to characterize addictive-like eating symptoms, was used in both studies to evaluate addictive-like eating behaviors with questions like, “Over time, I have found that I need to eat more and more of certain foods to get the feeling I want, such as reduced negative emotions or increased pleasure.”

Study 1 included 120 University of Michigan undergraduates (33% male, average age of 19 years). A forced-choice task was used to determine which food of two, pictured from a total bank of 35 foods, presented a problem in terms of trouble cutting down on the food or losing control over how much is eaten. Each food was compared to all other foods; half were categorized as highly processed, and the other half were categorized as not processed.

Study 2 included 384 workers from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing marketplace (59% male, average age of 31 years). Rather than comparing foods to each other, this group of participants rated each of the 35 foods on a Likert scale from 1 (not at all problematic) to 7 (extremely problematic).

The results

Highly processed foods with added fat and/or refined carbohydrates (e.g., chocolate, pizza, cake), as well as a higher glycemic index, demonstrated the strongest associations with addictive-like eating behaviors. The authors speculated that these aspects of food align with a high dose (high content of macronutrients) and rate of absorption (highly processed and high glycemic index) that is characteristic of addictive substances with the greatest abuse potential.

Higher BMI and YFAS symptoms were also small-to-moderate predictors of a greater difficulty controlling intake of these kinds of foods. Men reported a greater difficulty with high-fat unprocessed foods, such as nuts and cheese, than women.

Note

The observational nature of the study, convenience sampling, and self-reported data suggest caution when interpreting these results.

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