There are several types of eating disorders, some that involve eating too much, and those that involve eating way too little. Generally, the sufferer has an inaccurate perception of their own body and feelings of shame related to their eating habits.
There are many and varied risk factors for the development of an eating disorder, and food itself is rarely at the root. Food is just the substance that becomes abused, not the driver of the disorder.
That said, our modern Western diets are full of foods designed to make us want more, eat more, and consume more often. There are some surprising foods – and food additives – that are ready-made for abuse. We’ll let you in on those meals and ingredients that can spell trouble for your dietary health.
Sugar is one of the most addictive foods on the planet because our brains are hard-wired to crave it. Sugar provides the body with ready fuel for energy. But while nature has provided a huge range of naturally sweet foods, industry has discovered how to pump way more sugar than necessary into a range of products.
When we eat (or drink) sugary foods, our brains release a flood of feel-good chemicals and start clamoring for more. Overeating sugar can lead to a range of health complications, including obesity and diabetes.
Handle with care: Cookies, cakes, candy, soda, “kids” breakfast cereal
Eat instead: Fruit, yogurt, sugar-free gum, whole-food fruit & nut bars
Salt is another critical nutrient that our bodies need, but rarely as much as we give it. In proper balance with potassium, salt helps to support kidney function and control blood pressure. But too much of it leads to problems like hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, stroke, and osteoporosis.
Many processed and packaged foods are loaded with salt to keep you craving more. However, when you cook food fresh at home, you’ll naturally use less salt and still be satisfied.
Handle with care: Potato and tortilla chips, French fries, TV dinners
Eat instead: Low-salt nuts, unsalted popcorn, whole grain crackers & hummus, kale chips
Again, our bodies naturally crave fatty foods because fat provides sustained energy and typically contains vital nutrients as well. But – and this is a big but – there is a stark difference between healthy monounsaturated fat and the saturated stuff that is packed into processed foods at an unconscionable level.
Some natural foods, such as red meat, are also high in saturated fat, and we often make it worse by frying it in oil and drowning it in butter and rich sauces. Fat is undeniably tasty, but you don’t need to eat junk food to get the good feeling.
Handle with care: Fried chicken, fast food burgers, French fries, pizza, ice cream
Eat instead: Avocados, nuts, dark chocolate, whole eggs
Not only do the most addictive foods contain the trinity of salt, sugar, and fat, but they also often have further additives designed specifically to increase our cravings for them. These additives may be naturally derived and not necessarily dangerous on their own. But when they drive us to eat more unhealthy food, it’s a problem.
Handle with care: MSG
MSG is a short form of the flavoring agent monosodium glutamate. It is basically a concentrated salt product that enhances the taste of foods. Aside from the fact that it is pumped into a lot of fast and processed foods, MSG is generally safe in itself. However, some people who are sensitive to it experience headaches, rashes and itching, nausea, or even seizures.
One of the biggest problems with MSG is that it can make low quality and nutritionally void food taste really good. It may also suppress the brain signals that let us know we’re full, encouraging overeating.
Eat instead: Home cooked food flavored with fresh, natural spices
Handle with care: Casein
Casein is a compound that occurs naturally in milk, but industrial food manufacturers have discovered how to refine and concentrate it into a substance commonly dubbed the “nicotine of fast food.” Casein could be the reason we feel compelled to put cheese on everything, but it doesn’t stop there.
Foods that commonly have casein added include baked goods, creamy salad dressings and sauces, French fries, sausages, hot dogs, and whipped toppings. Again, casein isn’t harmful in itself, but it can definitely spike your cravings for food that is all-together unhealthy.
Eat instead: Nut milks, non-dairy cheese, fruits, vegetables, lean meat
Do addictive foods lead to eating disorders? Not directly, but these foods are common vehicles to support eating disorders that manifest in binge eating or binge-and-purge behavior. And because a diet high in these foods may be deficient in many critical nutrients, it can contribute to pica, or the compulsion to eat non-food items. Guilt over the cravings for food we know is unhealthy may even fuel eating disorders that deprive the body of enough food to survive.
This is simply a warning to be aware of the ways that food manufacturers use our natural body chemistry and brain wiring to drive us to purchase more of their food than we really need. Yes, junk food feels great to eat, but that feeling is short-lived and does significant cumulative damage over a lifetime.