Break Your Addictive Food Habit
Your brain may be wired to crave sugar, fat and salt, but you can retrain your taste buds to love healthier stuff
Ice cream sundaes. Super-sized cupcakes. Giant bags of salty tortilla chips. Cheese dip. If you crave one, two or all of these highly addictive foods, you’re not alone. A growing stack of research reveals that addictions to sugar, fat and salt can be hardwired in the human brain. What’s more, processed foods are likely to trigger wild cravings and out-of-control eating.
You can prevail. By understanding the science of food addiction you can outsmart your brain and cap off your cravings for addictive foods, says David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.
“I love good food,” Katz says. “But the only foods my taste buds and I consider good are foods that love me back.”
Here’s what you need to know about highly addictive foods, plus smart ways to curb your cravings for them.
Addictive Food Fact #1: Sugar is Public Enemy Number One
In a 2013 study from the Oregon Research Institute, scientists scanned the brains of 106 teenagers as they sipped chocolate milkshakes. The shakes contained an overload of sugar or fat. Both ingredients activated brain regions linked with enjoyment. The more sugar in a shake, however, the more activity the researchers observed in reward centers in the brain.
In a 2007 study from France’s University of Bordeaux, researchers found that sugar triggered a bigger response in reward centers of the brain than cocaine. That’s a problem, because a high-sugar diet can boost risk for weight gain, diabetes and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
To outsmart your sugar addiction: Read ingredients lists to find foods with fewer added sugars. Choose naturally sweet foods like fruit instead of processed treats, sweet drinks, syrup and jelly, suggests Katz, author of Disease Proof: Slash Your Risk for Heart Disease, Cancer, Diabetes and More by 80 Percent. Choose fruits you really love and add a dash of sweet spice, like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger and cloves. To sweeten fruit salad, coffee or plain yogurt, try a few drops of vanilla extract, the National Institute of Health suggests.
In a 2007 Dutch study, researchers found that warm foods taste sweeter, so trying baking apples, grilling peaches, broiling grapefruit or sautéing grapes in a little olive oil.
Include protein in each meal and snack. It will help keep your blood sugar levels steadier and for longer. Protein staves off hunger as well as cravings for more refined carbohydrates, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Addictive Food Fact #2: Eating fat makes you want more fat
Scientists in the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurobiology at Rockefeller University have discovered that digesting large amounts of fat releases compounds that stimulate the desire for even more fat.
The researchers noted that restricting fat doesn’t seem to trigger withdrawal symptoms the way cutting back on sugar does. But with nine calories per gram, versus four per gram for sugar, overeating fat may lead to more weight gain than overeating sugar.
To overcome your fat addiction: Cutting back on sugary treats may help you rein in fat, too, especially if you tend to overindulge in ice cream, baked goods or creamy desserts.
“Don’t cut out all fat,” Katz advises. “Eliminate trans fats in processed foods and eat less saturated fat, found in meat, full-fat dairy products and processed foods. If you cut back on the cheese in a casserole, spice it up. University of Colorado Denver researchers found that volunteers who ate a lower-fat version of an entrée packed with herbs said it was as tasty as the full-fat version.
Enjoy moderate portions of good fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, olive and canola oil and seafood. Pair these with produce, whole grains, beans and lentils and you’ll have a wholesome, life-prolonging Mediterranean-style diet.
Addictive Food Fact #3: Salt and addictive drugs activate the same brain areas
In a 2011 study, Duke University researchers found a “salt appetite center” in the brain that also responded, at least in animals, to cocaine and opium. A strong taste for sodium may be a survival instinct. Mammals, humans included, need salt to regulate fluids and blood pressure.
However, a hunger for salt can have “detrimental consequences when obesity-generating foods are overloaded with sodium,” co-lead author Wolfgang Liedtke, MD, PhD, noted in a university press release. An overload of sodium also may worsen high blood pressure in some people. Most Americans consume far more than the 2,300 milligrams a day or less recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
To stamp out your salt addiction: At least 75 percent of dietary sodium comes from processed foods, restaurant meals and fast food. Choose fresh, unprocessed foods and low- or no-sodium versions of foods you love, Katz recommends.
Try cooking without salt, too. It can take several weeks for your taste buds to adjust, but they will. In a study at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center, volunteers who followed a low-salt diet for five months ended up preferring less-salty versions of typically high-sodium foods like soup and crackers. Use salt-free spice blends, vinegars, garlic, onions, citrus and other natural flavorings instead.
Related: How Much Salt is Too Much?
How long might it take to retrain your taste buds and brain and break addictions to salt, fat and sugar? Several months, Katz says. But the result will be worth the wait. “For the rest of your life you won’t be choosing between good food that tastes good and food for good health. You’ll love the flavors of natural, healthy food. You’ll love the foods that love you back.”