"Nobody's binging on spinach or broccoli," says Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Michigan. As co-creator of Yale University's Food Addiction Scale, she's contributing to a growing body of research that puts "food"—or the processed chemicals that pass for food these days—in the same category as drugs of abuse.
How can a bag of chips and a sweet little snack cake turn you into an addict? Blame sugar, salt and fat. Our bodies have not evolved to handle this over-stimulating trifecta, says Gearhardt.
Long before Mrs. Fields was peddling cookies in shopping malls, sugar was a rare treat, found in fruit and guarded by stinging bees; salt was a simple garnish; and fat was a nutrient that had to be hunted or foraged. Now, processed foods often contain all three (remember the bacon ice cream sundae?)—minus the protein, fiber and water that help your body handle them.
And women are more likely than men to get addicted.
"Women tend to restrict and then binge," says Gearhardt. "That seems to sensitize the brain's developing an addictive process and for you to have a psychologically unhealthy relationship with the substance."
(Sound familiar? Find out if you're a food addict, and how to beat it.)
So which foods are the most addicting? Gearhardt told us the top 10. Is your biggest weakness in the countdown?
10. White Bread
You already knew that white bread was one of the worst things you have in your fridge. (Go through your refrigerator to clean up your diet! See the other 8 Worst Foods Lurking in Your Fridge.) It's made with refined flour, which has been stripped of the bran, the germ, and all of the nutrients normally present in bread. What a shame that restaurants tempt you with an entire basket before every meal out! Opt for substantial breads that you can't squish into the size of a marble. That way, you know the grains are truly "whole".
Shocker, right? Experts think sugar might be the most addicting of the three. (Ask any sugarholic who's tried to kick the habit, and they'll surely agree.) Science has proven the crazy-addictive potential of sugar. Studies have shown that every time rats eat large amounts, dopamine is released. That's not normal, says study author Dr. Nicole Avena, PhD, a research neuroscientist and expert in food addiction. "The dopamine release becomes more what you'd expect to see with a drug of abuse," she says.
We eat way too much of this starchy childhood favorite—and then we drench it in butter, salt and cheese. The typical Italian portion can fit in a teacup; American portions are closer to plate size. But it's not all bad news: buy high-quality spelt pasta, cook it al dente—which lowers its glycemic loadand use olive oil to greatly increase pasta's nutritional profile, says Andrew Weil, MD, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in his new cookbook True Food.