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Top 7 Most Addictive Unhealthy Foods

Whether it’s on a giant billboard, in a cheesy commercial, or filling a glossy page of a magazine, unhealthy temptation surrounds us everyday.

Typically, frequently advertised foods are the very ones we crave: foods high in ingredients like sugar, fat, and salt. Specifically, fast food restaurants’ advertisements and menus send environmental cues, which can trigger addictive overeating. Highly processed fast food can become a craving, which is seen in statistics of obesity.1

But just what makes certain ingredients so addicting? Why does it feel like we need more and more of them, the more we eat them?

For more on this topic, check out:

Addictive Food #1: French Fries

We all know it’s hard to just eat a couple of French fries, especially when we need that salty fix. That salt in those fried potato sticks is precisely what keeps us hooked, and always wanting more. One study reveals that sodium intake creates sensitivity to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure centers. There is actually a connection between salt and addiction-related pathways in the brain. In fact, the same gene group that regulates your appetite for salt also regulates cocaine and heroin addictions.2

Addictive Food #2: Potato Chips

Potato chips are high in salt and fat. When we bite into a greasy, fatty potato chip, our nerve endings send signals, which travel up to the pleasure center – the hypothalamus – of our brains. We eventually overload the pleasure center, and crash. Then, we want more, more, more. Even the “healthier” chips, like baked veggie chips, are usually high in fat. Instead, snacking on foods like baked kale “chips” is a better option when you have a hankering for a salty and crunchy snack.

Addictive Food #3: Soda

Soda’s combination of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, with caffeine, is the perfect addictive recipe. The caffeine goes directly into your bloodstream and blocks adenosine receptors, stimulating the adrenal gland to produce the flight or fight chemical adrenaline, which gives people a feeling of energy. In so many words, the body is being forced into an unnatural state that often leaves it exhausted later. And it’s easy to forget when you’re drinking a coke that you’re drinking tons of calories and sugar too. Only one can of coke has 11 teaspoons of sugar. Acidic soda can also eat up and erode teeth enamel. If gaining weight and decaying teeth isn’t enough reason to avoid soda, the over consumption of soda can cause psychological effects. Studies show drinking too much of a caffeinated soft drink has actually caused or amplified a patient’s mental disorder symptoms.34

Addictive Food #4: White Bread

Do you wonder why it’s hard to steer clear of the breadbasket when you’re out at dinner? When it comes down to it, any processed and high-glycemic carbohydrates, like white breads, are hard to stop eating and make us crave more. One study shows people who consume more nutrient dense, low-glycemic carbs are less likely to overeat. Examples of lower-glycemic foods are most fruit, beans, and whole grains, which release glucose more slowly into the bloodstream, and helps to balance blood sugar and fat storage.5

Addictive Food #5: Highly Processed Meat

Cold cuts like ham and bologna, hot dogs, bacon, and sausage are all – yet again- jam-packed with salt, and also various chemicals like sodium nitrates. Many of them also contain tons of preservatives and lots of fat. Specifically, hot dogs and sausage can contain up to 23 grams of fat. Consider fresh meats, like skinless poultry and roast beef instead.6

Addictive Food #6: Processed Baked Goods

Eating just one Oreo seems like it just not an option. But why? Studies show an ingredient in many baked goods, High-Fructose Corn Syrup, can actually cause reactions similar to those made by drug abuse. When a sweet craving hits, opt for a more nutrient dense snack like berries or another fruit with some cinnamon on top of oatmeal. And you may want to think twice about adding artificial sweeteners to your cup of coffee, because chances are, it may lead to greater sugar cravings later.7

Addictive Food #7: Ice Cream

Also full of fat, calories, sugar, and often the addictive High-Fructose Corn Syrup, ice cream can be difficult to portion. Realistically, we’re not going to eat a half-cup of ice cream, which is the typical serving size for grocery store ice cream brands, like Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs. For example, a half-cup of Haagen-Dazs White Chocolate Raspberry Truffle has 18 grams of fat, 310 calories, and 28 grams of sugar. Most people will eat at least one cup of ice cream at a time, doubling all of those numbers. Instead, go for Greek yogurt and fruit, or frozen grapes, or frozen banana. And if you must have the ice cream, pick the lower-fat and lower-calorie ice cream at the store.8

The foods on this list are calorie dense, lack nutritional value, and can be addictive. While most of us indulge in these foods every once in a while, if you find yourself constantly craving these addictive foods, consider writing down the situations you start craving them. Where are you? What do you see? Do you smell something? What time is it? Becoming more aware of why you get cravings can help you make very positive changes to your eating habits.

What do you think is the most addictive unhealthy food?

Show 8 References

  1. Garber AK, Lustig RH. Is fast food addictive? Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2011;4(3):146-62.
  2. Salt Appetite Is Linked To Drug Addiction, Research Finds. Science Daily. Jul 2011.
  3. Kromann CB, Nielsen CT. A case of cola dependency in a woman with recurrent depression. BMC Res Notes. 2012;5:692.
  4. Nazario, B. Help For Soda Lovers. WebMD. 2013.
  5. Lennerz BS, Alsop DC, Holsen LM, et al. Effects of dietary glycemic index on brain regions related to reward and craving in men. Am J ClinNutr. 2013;98(3):641-7.
  6. Magee, E. Worst Foods In Your Fridge. WebMD. 2013.
  7. Addiction To Unhealthy Food Could Help Explain Global Obesity Epidemic, Research Suggests. Science Daily. May 2013.
  8. Magee, E. Worst Foods In Your Fridge. WebMD. 2013.


  • Tanja says:

    Great article!! And spot on! I simply had to share my recent readings with you and all of your readers on this topic as it has changed my life in so many ways.

    I recently read 2 books:
    1) Sweet Poison by David Gillespie, and
    2) I Quit Sugar by Sarah Wilson.
    and they have changed my life.

    After reading them (especially Sweet Poison) I decided to quit sugar. Much to my own shock (I didnt think I had a problem) - quitting cold turkey highlighted some amazing responses in me - such that I see that fructose is incredibly addictive, and I was addicted to the fructose in carbs/ baked goods. My response in the first 3 days was pretty intense - even though I let myself eat as much full fat cheese, nuts and meat as I could get my hands on - it wasnt the hunger - it was the desire that shocked me. It proved to me that fructose really is addictive and disturbingly it is added in large amounts to many foods - especially low fat foods, and to all of the foods listed above. Since going cold turkey I have no attachment or desire to eat these foods at all - very odd considering before I couldnt last 0.5 a day without thinking about them (and then trying to either deny myself or limit them). Since quitting you can leave me alone in a room with them for days and I have absolutely no desire for them, or reaction to them at all.

    I strongly recommend everyone read Sweet Poison - parts of it are dry, but just skim read those. The biggest take out for me was that fructose is used because it is addictive, but the scariest part was that when fructose was given to lab rats in certain amounts they ALL became obese and got cancer. Not some - but ALL.

    Read these books, Quit and you'll never have to deny yourself again.

  • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

    Thanks for the write up, Caroline. For me the most addictive food is ice cream. If I eat something spicy, I really crave it. I may get a frozen yogurt instead of Haagan Dazs, but it's still filled with sugar. I've trained myself to drink water when I feel a craving for ice cream and only have it once in a blue moon.