By Jillian Tuchman, MS, RD
While some of us just can’t put down the roasted Brussels sprouts or sautéed spinach, many—ourselves included—sometimes can’t step away from the dark chocolate, chips, or cheese. Before you go down the shame spiral, know that it isn’t simply a lack of willpower; there are physiological reasons why we get hooked on certain foods, and understanding them can help us stop the cycle.
In a 2015 study from the University of Michigan, researchers asked people about the foods they just can’t seem to quit. Not surprisingly, the most addictive foods participants reported have two major things in common: High fat content and high glycemic load, which is a fancy way of saying that eating them causes your blood sugar to spike. Now, it’s totally normal for blood sugar to rise after we eat something, specifically carbohydrates, and fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. But how high your blood sugar rises, and what types of fat and how much of them you eat, can mean the difference between enjoying a bit of a food or overdoing it.
Lynn Schultz, LCSW, a therapist in New York City who specializes in treating eating disorders, preaches the importance of mindfulness, working with her patients to distinguish whether it’s physical or emotional hunger they’re trying to sate. “Rather than seeing food as ‘addictive,’ I look at why this food is creating this pattern for you,” she says. “And then, based on that, we look at interventions that break a negative cycle.”
“So many of us learn to use food to pacify our uncomfortable feelings—to numb our boredom, rejection, shame, loneliness, and anxiety. So food becomes the drug of choice for most Americans,” says Megan Bruneau, MA, RCC, an eating disorder therapist and body image expert based in New York City.
Fortunately, making a few strategic tweaks to our favorite foods can help us enjoy them in moderation. Here’s how:
No wonder this is on the list. A study published in the journal Obesity found that chocolate cravings, and the pleasure one derives from eating it, are pretty similar to what people experience during drug addiction. This is especially true when you’re eating chocolate cake, cookies, and ice cream, foods that have added sugar and calories to the chocolate base.
The Fix: Switching to dark chocolate and reducing your intake. If you think your chocolate habit is more than just a simple pleasure, challenge yourself to go without it for a few days, or even up to a week. When you do indulge, keep portions small—portion out one to two squares of the dark stuff and before eating it, put the remainder out of sight. Look for healthier dark chocolate brands made without refined sugar and with superfoods added.
There’s a reason why we’ve been addictive to pizza for millennia, with all that fatty oil and cheese, and a crust made of white flour. Pizza, it’s so hard to quit you.
The Fix: Pizza with grass-fed chesse and a cauliflower crust. Unlike the refined-flour kind, it’s full of fiber, so you stay off the blood sugar roller coaster. It’s surprisingly easy to make and yes, it will soon be addictive.
Its salt and fat content, coupled with its size and good dipping shape, makes tortilla chips a food that is easy to crave and hard to stop eating.
The Fix: Veggie chips! If it’s the starch you’re craving, try a baked sweet potato. Sweet and purple potatoes have a lower glycemic index than white potatoes, and baking them means you use less fat, making them far less addictive than a bag of chips. Or, bake up beet, kale and other types of baked veggie chips. In a time crunch? Grab a bag of Terra Chips or Good Health‘s chips.
Who can blame Cookie Monster? A study published in the journal Addiction Biology actually found that rats became as addicted to Oreos as they did to cocaine (yikes).
The Fix: Crackers or baking homemade cookies. Part of the cookie obsession is the satisfaction of eating crunchy sweet bits. You can sate some of that by making your own cookies. Just up the fiber content with whole-grain flour or nut flours, which will boost both the fiber and protein content, and reduce the sugar in the recipe. Or, better yet, have sprouted whole grain crackers, which are satisfying, especially when paired with healthy goat cheese and fruit.
We all scream for ice cream and it’s no surprise, given its luscious sugar-fat combo.
The Fix: Frozen fruit. While we know that the best behavioral intervention to control the amount you’re eating is to keep your freezer clear of pints and half gallons, you can visit an ice cream parlor, order the kid size and savor it. Or even better, indulge on frozen bananas, mangos, papaya and other fruits that have a heavier texture. Freeze them and then process in a blender for a delicious satisfying ice creamlike treat.
Along with the high fat and starch in these, French fries’ saltiness can be a draw to people struggling with adrenal fatigue, since their bodies may crave sodium to balance out their electrolytes.
The Fix: Veggie fries. Sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, and avocados all make a wonderful swap, and making them yourself allows you to control the salt and fat.
Get this: There’s a naturally occurring chemical called casomorphins in cheese that produces an opioid effect—so yes, you literally can become chemically addicted to cheese. The high-fat content, sodium and naturally occurring milk sugars also contribute to its addictive traits.
The Fix: Grass-fed cheeses and portion control. Easily digestible sheep and goat’s milk cheeses are healthy options that are great paired with fresh fruit. We’re not a fan of fake or low-fat cheeses, so your best bet is to have grass-fed and organic varieties and eat them in smaller doses as a special treat.