White bread, donuts and pastries, potato chips, cookies and snack crackers. What do these all have in common? They could be fueling your food addiction. Processed foods are high in refined carbohydrates, fats, sugar and salt and are designed not just to taste good, but to feel good in your mouth. Processed food companies want you to get hooked and have designed their foods to make that happen. Research is confirming that you really can get hooked on processed foods and that they are making you hungrier and pushing you toward binge eating.
The Science of Snack Foods
Food companies have long tried to create products that you love to eat. They want to make money and that means keeping you coming back for more. What most consumers have not realized is that there is an amazing amount of science and research that goes into making an addictive food product. Processed snack foods use combinations of sugar, fat and salt to keep us hooked. The products are also designed to have a pleasing mouth feel, a satisfying texture and (for some foods) to have just the right crunch. The science of leaving us wanting more also extends to marketing and advertising. What is the result of decades of this food science? An overweight, obese and sick population.
Processed Foods, Addiction and Binge Eating
Researchers not associated with big food companies have been tackling the problem of obesity and have uncovered some important truths. The first is that many snack foods and processed foods are rich in ingredients that rank high on the glycemic index. The glycemic index, or GI, ranks foods with respect to how they affect blood sugar. When you eat a high-GI food, your blood sugar goes up quickly, or spikes. Low-GI foods have much less impact and keep your blood sugar levels fairly steady.
Low-GI foods include whole, unprocessed grains, most whole vegetables and fruits and beans, legumes and nuts. On the other hand, high-GI foods include processed grains like white flour and white rice, potatoes and sugar. These are the kinds of ingredients that go into processed snack foods.
Researchers have been investigating how the GI of certain foods could impact overeating. In one study, the researchers gave participants two different milkshakes. They each had the same number of calories and the same flavor, but one was high on the glycemic index and the other was low. The participants were given the two shakes randomly over the course of several days.
When the participants had a high-GI shake, they were hungrier a few hours later than those who had eaten the low-GI shake. The researchers also created brain scans of the participants and found reactions in the brains of those eating the high-GI shakes that are similar to those seen in drug addicts. The high-GI food activated the same pleasure centers of the brain.
Because nearly all processed and snack foods are high on the glycemic index, it is important to understand how this affects your eating and your health. These high-GI foods make you hungrier and drive you to eat more. It comes as no surprise that these types of food have been major players in the obesity epidemic in the U.S. With knowledge comes power: as we learn more about how foods affect our brains and our bodies, we can learn to make better choices. Processed foods are in some ways as powerful as illicit drugs and should be handled with care.