When you love a food enough, you might consider it an addiction. For example, you might have a serious need for your favorite fruit, or a certain kind of cereal. But when it comes to ingredients, spices, and other foods that are addictive, the word takes on a whole different meaning.
For foods that are "addictive", it's usually due to the fact "they release endorphins or 'feel-good' neurotransmitters that can temporarily make us feel less depressed, anxious, or emotionally drained," Dr. Suzanne Fuchs, a health and wellness expert, tells Bustle. "This process somewhat mimics what happens in our brains and bodies when addicted to drugs. The food triggers the reward center of the brain and causes a pleasurable sensation." If a food elicits this kind of response in your brain, you might become a bit dependent on it.
That's not to say, however, that it's similar at all to a drug addiction. A physical addiction is something you might struggle to quit despite its negative effects on your life, while a dependence means your body requires more and more of a substance in order to achieve the same affects — such as suddenly needing three cups of coffee a day instead of one, because you've developed a tolerance. You might also go into withdrawal if you don't get your fix.
Other "addictive" foods, however, tend to be more emotionally and mentally addictive than anything else. When someone says they're addicted to a food, they often mean they've come to associate positive feelings with it, and thus crave it as more of a comfort food. But, they could go without it without the effort it would take to break a physical addiction.
With those distinctions in mind, remember that craving a food isn't always a bad thing. With spices, for example, there's usually no harm in including them as part of your lifestyle, even if they have mentally addictive qualities. It is interesting, however, to learn more about how these foods can affect your brain, and why you might crave them. Here are a few foods experts say can make you feel addicted, either physically or mentally.
Out of all the ingredients in the world, many nutritionists argue sugar is one of the most addictive. "Sugar is so addictive because it stimulates the reward [centers] in our brain, making us feel happy and reinforcing our desire for more," Dr. Rob Raponi, a naturopathic doctor at MSK Naturopathic, tells Bustle. It releases those "feel good hormones," which also explains why you might reach for a sugary snack when you're feeling sad or stressed out.
If you are experiencing unhealthy side effects from too much sugar, like moodiness or brain fog, however, it may be a good idea to cut back. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recommends keeping your daily intake of all sugars to 12.5 teaspoons or less.
If you've heard someone say they're addicted to cumin, that's not likely the case — at least not in a physical sense. "If you are someone who feels they are addicted to cumin, it is likely a mental and not a physical addiction," Dr. Raponi says. "The [drug-like effect] cumin has is that when it is enjoyed, it too has a mild dopamine response associated with it."
But that's true of all foods we enjoy, he says. And that's what a mental or psychological addiction might look like, versus one that's more physical — you crave the food because of that release of dopamine you get when eating it. Since it's not likely to be harmful, you can continue to use cumin in moderation, if you so choose.
While not physically addictive, cinnamon is another spice that can certainly be addictive in other ways, just like cumin. Or even, in many ways, like sugar.
"It can become mentally addictive in the same way as sugar since it has a sweetness to it and can stimulate the reward pathways in the brain, however, cinnamon is not bad," Dr. Raponi says. "Real cinnamon can actually help regulate blood sugar levels and control sugar cravings since it can be as rewarding without any of the negative consequences of sugar."
Again, it's all about moderation. You can have cumin, cinnamon, and sugar whenever you like, but do take your health into consideration.
While chocolate can be mentally addictive for its sweet, comforting taste, it's actually the caffeine found in cocoa that can keep you physically hooked, since caffeine can lead to dependence. "Caffeine is a drug; one that causes us to rely on it for stimulation and satisfaction," Dr. Raponi says. "We know it is a powerfully addictive food because when we cut it out, we can actually experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches and cravings." Which means the affects of caffeine go beyond an emotional connection, or a simple craving.
If you're physically addicted, you might notice headaches and cravings when you cut back on foods that contain caffeine, such as chocolate, coffee, or caffeinated sodas. These are withdrawal symptoms may be a sign that it's time to wean yourself off, so that you can feel better.
Drinking a diet soda can be a great way to enjoy a bubbly beverage without shocking your system with tons of excess sugar. But the very fact it doesn't contain real sugar is actually what can make people have a dependence on it.
"Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, which is what make diet soda and other zero-calorie drinks sweet, are highly addictive by nature," Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics, tells Bustle. "Diet sodas are not actually efficient in terms of quenching thirst — once you've drunken some, you're likely to remain thirsty; not satiated. [But they also have an] overly-sweet taste, [which] can manipulate the taste buds over time into craving only drinks that are as sweet." So once you have one, you want another, and another, and so on.
It's OK to have diet soda or two, as long as you're also hydrating with water. Do keep in mind, though, that it may not be the best choice if you're looking to quench a thirst.
For all the salt lovers out there, it'll come as no surprise that it can be mentally addictive, too. As Dr. Fuchs says, "salt creates the reward sensation like drugs that are linked to behavioral conditioning and dopamine release," which can create a dependence. As with sugar, a salty snack can be just as difficult to put down, and it may be something you reach for when you need some comfort.
Keep in mind, though, that crunchy foods can be comforting mentally, but that dopamine release may be what's keeping you coming back for more. "It is this surge and resulting feeling that is truly addictive, rather than the food itself," nutrition editor Paul Salter tells Bustle. "Common foods that may trigger such a response include baked goods, candy, chips, and peanut butter. Often, they're foods that stimulate taste buds in multiple ways and are primarily composed of sweet or salty tastes."
As noted on WebMD, basic U.S. dietary guidelines suggest that a majority of Americans should consume less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day. If you can stay within that range, you won't be putting yourself at risk for health concerns like high blood pressure.
Just like diet soda, potato chips are perfectly fine to consume in moderation. They do, however, have the potential to be a bit mentally addictive, because they're a comfort food of the highest order. First of all, "they come loaded with salt, so a sodium rush is experienced," Backe says. And as mentioned above, salt can trigger the reward center of the brain, which can leave you wanting more.
As with all foods, chips are completely fine to eat in moderation. But if you eat them, and wonder why you want more, this may explain why. Keep in mind, though, that the salt content in chips counts as part of your daily salt intake.
When a food has been taken out of its natural form and refined — like the way whole grain wheat can be refined to white flour — it has the potential to make you dependent.
"Basically, the more refined or processed a food is, the more habit-forming it can become," says Dr. Fuchs. "After your body becomes used to these substances you will need increased amounts over time to satisfy your craving in order to prevent withdrawal type symptoms." And that's because, as Dr. Fuchs says, they have the ability to mess with your blood sugar, which can leave you feeling hungrier.
Keep in mind, though, that most foods are OK to eat in moderation. While some foods may be habit-forming, or lead to dependence, incorporating alternatives into your lifestyle can help lessen cravings.