Up to 20% of people may have a food addiction or exhibit addictive-like eating behavior (
This number is even higher among people with obesity.
Food addiction involves being addicted to food in the same way as someone with a substance use disorder demonstrates addiction to a particular substance (
People who have food addiction report that they are unable to control their consumption of certain foods.
However, people don’t just become addicted to any food. Some foods are much more likely to cause symptoms of addiction than others.
Researchers at the University of Michigan studied addictive-like eating in 518 people (
They used the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) as a reference. It’s the most commonly used tool to assess food addiction.
All participants received a list of 35 foods, both processed and unprocessed.
They rated how likely they were to experience problems with each of the 35 foods, on a scale of 1 (not at all addictive) to 7 (extremely addictive).
In this study, 7–10% of participants were diagnosed with full-blown food addiction.
In addition, 92% of participants exhibited addictive-like eating behavior toward some foods. They repeatedly had the desire to quit eating them but were unable to do so (
The results below detail which foods were the most and least addictive.
In a 2015 study, 92% of participants exhibited addictive-like eating behavior toward certain foods. 7–10% of them met the researchers’ criteria for full-blown food addiction.
Not surprisingly, most of the foods rated as addictive were processed foods. These foods were usually high in sugar or fat — or both.
The number following each food is the average score given in the study mentioned above, on a scale of 1 (not at all addictive) to 7 (extremely addictive).
- pizza (4.01)
- chocolate (3.73)
- chips (3.73)
- cookies (3.71)
- ice cream (3.68)
- french fries (3.60)
- cheeseburgers (3.51)
- soda (not diet) (3.29)
- cake (3.26)
- cheese (3.22)
- bacon (3.03)
- fried chicken (2.97)
- rolls (plain) (2.73)
- popcorn (buttered) (2.64)
- breakfast cereal (2.59)
- gummy candy (2.57)
- steak (2.54)
- muffins (2.50)
The 18 most addictive foods were most often processed foods with high amounts of fat and added sugar.
The least addictive foods were mostly whole, unprocessed foods.
- cucumbers (1.53)
- carrots (1.60)
- beans (no sauce) (1.63)
- apples (1.66)
- brown rice (1.74)
- broccoli (1.74)
- bananas (1.77)
- salmon (1.84)
- corn (no butter or salt) (1.87)
- strawberries (1.88)
- granola bar (1.93)
- water (1.94)
- crackers (plain) (2.07)
- pretzels (2.13)
- chicken breast (2.16)
- eggs (2.18)
- nuts (2.47)
The least addictive foods were almost all whole, unprocessed foods.
Addictive-like eating behavior involves a lot more than just a lack of willpower, as there are biochemical reasons why some people lose control over their consumption.
This behavior has repeatedly been linked to processed foods, especially those high in added sugar and/or fat (
Processed foods are usually engineered to be hyper-palatable so that they taste really good.
They also contain high amounts of calories and cause significant blood sugar imbalances. These are known factors that can cause food cravings.
However, the biggest contributor to addictive-like eating behavior is the human brain.
Your brain has a reward center that secretes dopamine and other feel-good chemicals when you eat.
This reward center explains why many people enjoy eating. It ensures that enough food is eaten to get all the energy and nutrients that the body needs.
Eating processed junk food releases massive amounts of feel-good chemicals, compared with unprocessed foods. This yields a much more powerful reward in the brain (
The brain then seeks more reward by causing cravings for these hyper-rewarding foods. This can lead to a vicious cycle called addictive-like eating behavior or food addiction (
Processed foods can cause blood sugar imbalances and cravings. Eating junk food also makes the brain release feel-good chemicals, which can lead to even more cravings.
Food addiction and addictive-like eating behavior can create serious problems, and certain foods are more likely to trigger them.
Eating a diet that mostly comprises whole, single-ingredient foods can help reduce the likelihood of developing a food addiction.
They release an appropriate amount of feel-good chemicals, while not triggering the urge to overeat.
Note that many who have food addiction will need help to overcome it. Working with a therapist can address any underlying psychological issues contributing to food addiction, while a nutritionist can design a diet that’s free of trigger foods without depriving the body of nutrition.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on September 3, 2017. Its current publication date reflects an update, which includes a medical review by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD.