What Makes Chips Addictive?

When you emptied an entire bag of potato chips, you may ask yourself: what makes chips addictive? Scientists talk about hedonic hyperphagia or hedonic hunger. In plain English, it is the pleasure of eating, even when you are not hungry. There are certain foods that seduce you to overeat, and one of these are chips. Chocolate or candy can be other high-hedonic rating foods.

Erlangen experiments

A group of researchers from the Erlangen University in Germany set out to get to the bottom of this addiction eating. 17 healthy subjects with a body mass index of between 19 and 27 were recruited for eating experiments. They got either high calorie chips or low calorie zucchini. The chips created a marked stimulation on a functional MRI scan where the nucleus accumbens was lighting up. When they consumed zucchini no such stimulation could be documented. The researchers had done similar experiments with the same foods on rats. They too had functional MRI scans and the tests showed similar stimulation after the test animals consumed chips, but not after zucchini.

Nucleus accumbens, the addiction center for food

Professor Andreas Hess and his team in Erlangen say that the nucleus accumbens is the addiction center for food. They also did experiments with fat to carbohydrate composition to find the most addictive mixture. There is a certain fat to carbohydrate ratio that triggers food addiction. What surprised the Erlangen researchers was that both in rats and humans the optimal addiction potential was identical.

  • They found that rats preferred 35% of fat and 45% of carbohydrates in their chips. With humans there is the other factor: on top of the fat/carb mixture we like to taste some salt and spices, because this also will stimulate our appetite. The food industry has figured this out long time ago. This knowledge from tasting experiments is built into processed food.
  • The Erlangen researchers  also found that in obese people the nucleus accumbens was lighting up more intensely the higher the BMI was. That means that obese people are more food-addicted!

Triggering the nucleus accumbens

  • Professor Hess postulates that the 35% fat to 45% carb mix in potato chips is ideal for the body. It can mobilize quick energy from carbs, but also have storable energy from fat at the same time. It is this mix, which stimulates the addiction center in the nucleus accumbens.
  • In a study from Bethesda, Maryland researchers found an overlap between food addiction and drug addiction.  The common pathways in both is the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. This dopamine release makes us feel good, and as a result, we want to experience it again.
  • In this study patients with bulimia nervosa were examined. They found that   overconsumption of sugar-laden foods had very similar effects as drugs in drug-addicted patients. It is the release of dopamine, glutamate and the opioid system that are involved in both. The nucleus accumbens is also receiving stimulation in both situations.

What can be done about food addiction?

This publication noted that people who are food addicted eat higher amounts of fat and carbohydrates. With this mix the feel-good nucleus accumbens produces most dopamine, which is the driving force behind the addiction.

  • If you cut out sugar, you find it easier to control your eating portions. But you also must cut out processed food, as this is where a lot of hidden sugar is coming from.
  • Cut down on your fat consumption. Even if you reduce it from 35% to 10% or 15%, this is a huge step forward. It reduces your calorie intake significantly, but also reduces the stimulation of your appetite center.
  • Eat lots of vegetables, salads and some fruit. Be careful with some fruit like grapes, bananas, mangos, papayas and dates. They are all higher in sugars. If you cannot entirely avoid those, use portion control, so you are not overeating on them.

Portion control

Besides changing the food quality, you can reduce the portions of food you are eating. Instead of mindlessly emptying a whole bag of chips, you could get a small bowl and fill part of the bag of chips into it. Remove the bag into a cupboard that is difficult to reach. If you are sitting and watching TV, you could eat one chip at a time, but only during commercial breaks. This way your chip eating becomes more conscious and more controlled, and you set a limit. In time you may find that you can replace the chips with a lower calorie food like slices of apples, celery sticks or carrot sticks.

What Makes Chips Addictive?

What Makes Chips Addictive?


Researchers found that chips were addictive in rats and in humans. Functional MRI scans of brains in rats and humans showed that potato chip eating stimulated the nucleus accumbens. It was lighting up in both species when the test subjects consumed potato chips. Surprisingly, it did not matter, whether these were test animals or humans! A review of several research papers showed a similarity between food addiction and drug addiction. It is dopamine and other brain transmitters that stimulate the nucleus accumbens, which is the addiction center. One of the keys, professor Hess from Erlangen University in Germany found, is the fat/carb mix. When the potato chips contained 35% fat and 45% carbs, this stimulated the nucleus accumbens.

Changing your eating habits

Knowing all of this helps us to be able to change our eating habits. To avoid the pitfalls of food addiction, cut out sugar and starchy foods, and remove processed foods from your diet. Also reduce some of the fat to 10% or 15% fat in your total diet. Eat lots of vegetables and fruit low in sugar. In addition you should also consider with portion control to avoid mindless munching. Before you know it you can shed the pounds that you may have accumulated before. You will be able to reduce your BMI to 21 to 23. Many people have done it before you.

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Melamine In Milk Products

The news has been reporting about contaminated baby formula that has its origin in China. The offensive substance is melamine, which is widely used in the manufacturing of plastics and paints. The industrial chemical most definitely has no place in human foods, as the ingested substance leads to kidney stones and kidney damage, which can ultimately be fatal. The number of sick infants has been on the increase, and numerous deaths have now been reported. Initially melamine was found only in baby formula which was produced by the state owned Sanlu Group, but as more products have been scrutinized, the offending substance has been found in 22 out of China’s 109 dairy manufacturers’ brands. While Sanlu seems to be the worst offender in this contamination spree, the list also included the two other largest manufacturers-the Yili Industrial Group that was one of the sponsors of the Beijing Olympic Games and the Hong Kong Mengniu Dairy.
While there has been a recall of the products on September 11, this has not been early enough. The Sanlu board of directors was first advised as early as August 2 that there was a problem with contamination of infant formula. It may seem to the consumer in other parts of the world that the contamination scandal is strictly the business of China, but in a global market this vision may be short-sighted. A vast amount of products in the global market have their origin in China.

Melamine In Milk Products

Melamine In Milk Products

The infant formula has been exported to African countries, to Indonesia and to India. Import stores on other continents carry products that are purchased by customers who remember the product from China. The melamine contamination seems not to be confined to infant formula only: there have been product recalls on yogurt drinks and candy, in which melamine laced milk powder has been used. There may be import bans in place to protect consumers, but ultimately the “buyer beware” warning is still as valid as ever. Consumers must read labels carefully to check the origin of a food product. It may be packaged by a local company, but the small print states that it is imported. If in doubt, ask questions about the origin of food.

Reference: BMJ 2008;337:a1738

Last edited December 3, 2012


Mindless Snacking Makes You Fat

Eating healthy and exercising is considered the key to healthy lifestyle and also thought to be a reliable way to natural weight loss. There seem to be other aspects that matter, according to some thought provoking research that comes out of the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois.
One of the lab’s more recent experiments looked at mindless eating: people snack totally oblivious to the fact that they are not really hungry. The researchers looked at the most common venue for this habit and investigated 158 moviegoers in Philadelphia with an average age of 28.7 years. They gave them 120g pails and 240 g pails of fresh and stale popcorn. Those who received the large size pails consumed more popcorn (45.3 % more when it was fresh and 33.6 % more of the old and stale product.) When it comes to overeating, the researchers suggest, that portion size is more important than taste! The study appeared in the September/October edition of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. It also confirms the results of similar research. One member of a family who had been given a bulky 900g bag of candy to munch on during a film reported, that between four people they consumed a pound-and-a-half of M&Ms during the show. They just could not stop!
The shape of drinking glasses can also fool even veteran bar tenders. The “vertical-horizontal illusion” is an innate human sensory deficiency, and people think that a tall, skinny glass holds more than a squat tumbler, even though they both hold the same volume.

Mindless Snacking Makes You Fat

Mindless Snacking Makes You Fat

The founder of the Food and Brand Lab, Professor Brian Wansink, PhD is aiming his research at helping consumers to become more responsible in eating small quantities of more nutritious foods.

More information about food intake and changing eating habits: http://nethealthbook.com/health-nutrition-and-fitness/weight-loss-and-diet/changing-eating-habits/

Reference: National Review of Medicine, September 15,2005, page 1,5

Last edited October 29, 2014