For some, it’s milk chocolate. For others, it’s Doritos. There are even those who cannot keep away from mini rice cakes spread with butter. Almost everyone who has struggled with their weight has a few foods that can be relied upon to wreak havoc on even the most carefully planned diet. Aside from being a source of immense frustration, these foods also share another feature: all of them contain a ratio of two parts carbohydrate to one-part fat. The science backs this up. In 2015, researchers from the University of Michigan took 120 students, offered them a choice of 35 different foods, and asked them to fill in the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a measure of how addictive you find a particular food. The foods were then ranked from 1 to 35 by the students. Top of the list of “most addictive foods” was chocolate, followed by ice cream, French fries, pizza, biscuits, crisps, cake, buttered popcorn and cheeseburgers. At the bottom were salmon, brown rice, cucumber and broccoli.
World’s Most Addictive Foods
Here are the top addictive foods, broken down by fat, carbohydrate and calorie content per 100g:
|Milk chocolate||30g fat||58g carbs||534 calories|
|Ice cream||12g fat||24g carbs||200 calories|
|French fries||15g fat||32g carbs||270 calories|
|Pepperoni pizza||10g fat||30g carbs||266 calories|
|Crisps||30g fat||50g carbs||536 calories|
|Sponge cake||26g fat||50g carbs||546 calories|
|Buttered popcorn||30g fat||56g carbs||546 calories|
|Cheeseburger||14g fat||30g carbs||303 calories|
Risking The Macros
Looking at the foods when listed by content, it is striking that each one of them is made up of approximately 1g fat to 2g carbs. Which – it turns out – is the exact same ratio of fat to carbohydrate that is present in the very first food that we consume: human breast milk. In fact, milk is one of the very few natural foods that contains high amounts of fat and carbs all mixed together.
The infant brain is super-sensitive to experiences during early years, laying down neural reward pathways that last for life. It is not surprising, then, that the food that gives us our first feelings of reward lays the foundation for our later food cravings.
Some might conclude from this that there is very little that we can do to alter our hard wiring. We’re not babies any more: our brains are no longer forming their first connections. But this would be wrong. A growing body of evidence shows that the human brain is a continuous work in progress: even in midlife we can remodel and reshape its deep-level connections, allowing us to break free from lifelong patterns of behavior. And for a population caught in the grip of an obesity crisis, this awareness could quite literally save lives. Here’s a practical, three-step guide to retraining your brain to resist addictive foods.
Eat A Mediterranean-Style Diet
Studies show that a Mediterranean-style diet can improve the performance of a brain region linked specifically to self-control. The urge to give in to cravings of any kind – whether for food, nicotine, alcohol or gambling – is closely linked to a set of reward pathways forming part of the mid-brain. Signals from these pathways, however, can be given a “veto” by another set of neurons, closer to the front of the brain, within the “prefrontal cortex” or PFC. In small children, the PFC is particularly under-developed. This is one reason why children struggle so much when they are not allowed whatever they want – as any parent who has dealt with a temper-tantrum can attest! When the PFC functions well, on the other hand, we display the opposite of toddler tantrums. We are better able to focus; we have greater self-control, including control over what we eat; and we have greater mental flexibility. Together, these qualities are termed “executive function.” In a review of a number of studies, a team of researchers at Trinity College, Dublin found people who consume a Mediterranean-style diet – particularly one rich in extra-virgin olive oil, fish and fresh vegetables – tend to have better executive function compared to those following conventional weight-loss advice. In order to conquer addictive foods, then, it is essential to keep your self-control in peak condition. And to do this, you need to look after your PFC. And to do this? Stock up your cupboards with fresh vegetables, fish, and extra-virgin olive oil.
Increased fitness leads to increased prefrontal cortex size, which makes it easier to make the right food choices. As we have seen, the idea that the brain is an unchangeable, hardwired set of drives is false: A factor as simple as the amount of fish you eat can have a measurable effect on how it functions. Exercise, like diet, is another easy way to build a brain that can resist the lure of addictive foods. Again, the science bears this out. In 2012, for example, a US-based study compared the fitness, executive performance and PFC volume (using MRI scans) of 142 adults of average age 66. The results showed that a high level of fitness, on average, correlated with a whopping 12.55 increase in grey matter volume within the PFC. That’s a lot of brain. In 2011, a study even showed that exercise can reverse loss of brain matter in later life. These kinds of results are especially important, as they support the conclusion that that exercise builds a better brain – not the other way around.
Remember, to get fitter, you don’t have to exhaust yourself training for a marathon, or squeeze into neon Lycra. The key is to find an activity that you enjoy enough to take part in at least three times each week. As well as following a structured program of exercise, you can also improve your heart and lung function by increasing the number of steps that you take through the day. If you take public transport to work, get off a stop earlier and walk the rest of the way. And if you are working at a desk, take a short break every half-hour to walk a few hundred steps.
Try To Limit Your Exposure To Stress
Stress measurably reduces your brain’s ability to resist unhealthy, tempting snacks.
To make it easier to choose healthy foods, try three simple steps: Plan your meals in advance; sleep more; try mindfulness. Studies of how the brain responds to stress have made an amazing discovery: The drive to hit the junk when you are under pressure has its roots in brain pathways that are as real as anything else in your body. Junk food truly does become more attractive to us when we are stressed.
The sight of junk food, when we are stressed, is an obesity-trap. Modern life, however, drives us relentlessly towards its jaws. Big Food uses expert psychologists and marketers to ensure that we are presented with alluring displays of obesity-causing foods, right when your defenses are at their lowest – when we’re stressed on a long journey, or traveling home from a hard day at work, or out and about with tired and irritable children. We’re not going to be able to close down the food industry; neither can we create for ourselves miraculously stress-free lives. However, there is a simple and practical step you can take that can help to protect you from choosing junk, and back towards health. It starts with planning your meals.
How many times have you woken up and decided – “Today is the day I am going to impulse-buy a heap of junk food”? The chances are – never. When you succumb to eating badly, it is almost always because you have been caught out when hungry, and temptation was there. The good news, though, is that with a bit of planning you can make sure that these occasions happen less often. Seek out recipes that are easy to shop for and prepare, and are also designed, whenever possible, to keep in the fridge for a packed lunch the next day. You’ll be surprised by how little effort it actually takes to plan and prepare healthy food, and the food industry is going to have to work harder – a lot harder – to catch you out.
Beat Junk Food in One Minute
From the very start of your life, your mind is primed to obtain an intense reward-hit from foods that contain a ratio of approximately two parts carbohydrate to one part fat. Not by coincidence, this ratio is present in the kinds of foods that people can’t stop eating: chocolate, pizza, crisps and buttered popcorn, to name just a few. In the modern world, of course, the food industry prompts you to consume them continually. No wonder more than half of people are obese. Fortunately however, the human brain can remodel itself away from obesity. By eating a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in fresh vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil and fish, studies suggest that it may well be possible to develop increased volume in parts of the brain linked to self-control. Similar results also link increased exercise with an increased ability to make better food choices. While diet and exercise favor better self-control, stress works against it. With a few practical steps, however, you can give yourself better odds of not getting caught out by a tough day. Plan your meals ahead; make sure you get enough sleep; and try out mindfulness.