11 of the Most Addictive Unhealthy Foods (and Why You Can’t Stop Eating Them)

Why is it always the foods highest in sugar and fat are the ones you can never seem to get away from? (If vegetables tasted like Cheetos, we’d all be better off.) There are a lot of reasons why you can’t stop eating less healthy foods, too. It comes down to not only ingredients like sodium, sugar and fat, but also cost and convenience. Here’s why you can’t stop eating some of your favorite foods, how to balance out your diet without giving them up, and some good news for people who really like cheese.

1. Bacon

Bacon pieces sitting in a cast iron skillet.

Bacon is the ultimate addictive food.  | iStock.com/VeselovaElena

Bacon is a processed meat, making it one of the unhealthiest foods you can eat. During production, chemicals like sodium are added in order to preserve it. This is one reason why a Nutrition Research study linked processed meat to high blood pressure. Sadly, highly processed foods like bacon and hot dogs play a vital role in developing food addiction, PLoS One research has found. Once you introduce all those flavorful, but highly addictive, chemicals into your system, it’s hard to stop.

2. Cheese

Glass bowl filled with grated cheese next to a wedge of cheese on a table.

Cheese addiction is real.| iStock.com/lisaaMC

The idea that cheese is as addicting as drugs is a myth, according to author Robert J. Davis. So, your love of the dairy product technically isn’t dangerous. However, cheese does have a high saturated fat content, which could explain why it’s virtually impossible to eat just one cheese cube and walk away satisfied. In fact, research published in Addictive Behaviors Reports suggests eating foods high in dietary fat could contribute to food addiction.

Fat, whether naturally occurring or added during processing, enhances the flavor of foods. That’s probably why it’s so easy to eat so much cheese in one sitting (as we all know from experience).

Why dairy isn’t as addicting as drugs

Dipping bread into a bowl filled with cheese fondue.

Eating cheese fondue with bread is like nirvana. | iStock.com/margouillatphotos

In 2015, researchers published a study which surveyed the foods people found most addictive. Cheese appeared somewhere on the list, which somehow escalated to headlines reporting cheese was as addicting as drugs. Thankfully, it’s not true. Even better news: Cheese has health benefits! It’s packed with protein, calcium and vitamin K2, which, according to The Journal of the American College of Nutrition, all promote bone and muscle health, especially for women.

Overall, cheese is not the enemy. You shouldn’t cover everything you eat in the stuff (sorry), but you’re allowed to have it if you like it.

3. Ice cream

tubs of ice cream

We are willing to bet you can eat a lot of ice cream. | David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Sugar is bad. Health experts have been trying to convince us to give up added sugar for years. But why is it that one scoop of sugar-packed, oh-so-delicious ice cream is never enough? A Neuroscience study found that over-consuming sugar results in the release of dopamine. This chemical regulates your brain’s pleasure and reward centers, so it helps you recognize and recall which behaviors result in pleasure. When you eat ice cream, you feel good. So you keep eating more. See the problem?

4. Breakfast cereal

Coloful Fruit Cereal Loops

The fruit in this cereal isn’t real–kind of like the allusion that it could keep you full. | iStock.com/bhofack2

If you go through boxes of cereal within days of buying them, it’s probably because they actually make you hungrier. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating foods high on the glycemic index can lead to increased hunger. These foods also tend to be high in refined sugars.

Since breakfast is the most important meal of the day, consider skipping the cereal and going for something high in fiber and protein. You’ll be satisfied in terms of fullness and with having made a great decision to start your day.

How food without fiber keeps you hungry

A close up shot of macadamia nuts laid out on a wooden table.

You need plenty of fiber to keep you full. | iStock.com/pinkomelet

When experts say junk food lacks nutrition, they’re usually referring to things like protein, vitamins, and minerals. Fiber is one such nutrient many people don’t get enough of, says the Journal of Nutrition. According to Mayo Clinic, foods high in dietary fiber can be beneficial for a number of reasons. Fruit, for example, tends to take longer to eat, which means you’re more likely to eat less of it. Eating foods high in fiber makes it so you can enjoy smaller portions of your favorite foods without eating multiple servings in one sitting. Expecting poorly nutritious foods to fill you up, on the other hand, is literally a waste of energy.

5. Potato chips

potato chips in white bowl

Watch out for those junky foods you might munch on during a late-night TV binge. | GooDween123/iStock/Getty Images

We like eating crunchy things, that’s just fact. Research scientist John Allen suggests it’s because we evolved eating insects, then raw veggies, and so on. There’s a lot about a potato chip you like besides its saltiness — maybe it’s the sound it makes when you eat it. Not to mention, you probably eat chips by the handful straight out of the bag, which makes it much easier to eat large amounts all at once. That’s probably why you don’t typically eat a dozen celery sticks in one sitting, even though they’re crunchy, too.

6. Pizza

margarita pizza top view

There’s a reason you always crave pizza late at night. | iStock.com/erkanatbas

It’s not just fat and sugar that make it hard to stay away from certain foods. Cost is also a factor. Consider this systematic review from the American Journal of Public Health, which predicted that lower cost might prompt people to purchase unhealthy foods. Depending on where you order from, you can sometimes get a large pizza for as little as $5. That’s a lot of pizza for such a low cost. Even if it’s not as good as a more expensive pie, it’s much more likely to seem worth it to you anyway. Once all that pizza is in your possession, there’s really nothing stopping you from eating as much of it as you possibly can.

7. French fries

Container of fresh fried french fries with ketchup and white sauce on wooden table.

Step away from the fried food. | iStock.com/Miroha141

An Obesity study puts particular emphasis on convenience over nutrition and cost when looking at why people continue to eat foods that are unhealthy. The more convenient it is to purchase and/or prepare a certain food, the more likely you are to choose it — even if you’re completely aware of how terrible it is. French fries are a great example. There are a lot of fries in that large container, and in most cases, you don’t even have to get out of your car to get the snack. And, of course, the added saltiness, crunchiness, and flavor make fries extremely difficult to resist.

8. Buttered popcorn

buttered popcorn

Popcorn becomes pretty addictive when you add butter to the equation. | Kitzcorner/ iStock/Getty Images Plus

According to a Nutrition Journal study, popcorn tends to fill you up more than potato chips. Yet when was the last time you sat through 20 minutes of movie previews without devouring half of your popcorn in the process? It’s probably the salt. Research published in Physiology & Behavior once again points to your brain’s pleasure and reward centers as a possible cause for our love of salty foods. Even though we don’t need to use salt to preserve our food anymore, the second you taste something salty, it’s all you can think about.

9. Muffins

Muffins on a table with sesame and cinnamon.

Muffins are delicious, but they have a lot of sugar. | iStock.com/AnastasiiaSelora

Most muffins are made with white sugar, lots of it. If you’re genetically predisposed to addictive behaviors, you’re much more likely to over-consume foods high in sugar. This is according to a study published in International Scholarly Research Notices, which studied what factors are likely to cause food addiction. For some people, eating just one muffin for breakfast is more of a challenge due to the food’s high sugar content.

How baking muffins at home can improve your health

A woman's hands covered in flour kneading dough in a bowl in preparation for baking.

Try baking them at home to make them healthier. | iStock.com/Kerkez

When buying muffins from a store or bakery, you have little control over the ingredients. If you make them yourself; however, you have the option to use healthier alternatives to common baking staples, like whole-wheat flour, applesauce instead of butter, even avocado to replace the eggs. That’s not the only benefit spending time in the kitchen can offer you, though. The Wall Street Journal reports an increasing number of mental health treatment programs use cooking as a method for improving depression and anxiety.

Baking specifically is a creative activity, which the American Journal of Public Health cites as a potential way to enhance your mood. So get creative with decorating your baked goods — it’s good for you.

10. Chocolate

Organic Dark Chocolate Chips

Who can say no to chocolate? | iStock.com/bhofack2

Do you eat chocolate when you’re sad? It might have magical powers of comfort and happiness after all. According to the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, the endorphins produced after consuming chocolate could be partially responsible for how happy you feel when you eat an Oreo. Unfortunately, dopamine is also involved, resulting in the same effects as scarfing ice cream: Eating chocolate makes you crave more chocolate.

Limiting your chocolate consumption is hard, though. Try storing it in a place that’s hard to reach so you’re less tempted snag it whenever you set foot in your kitchen.

11. Fried chicken

Two hands holding a piece of crispy fried chicken.

You can’t just eat one bite of fried chicken. | iStock.com/PhanuwatNandee

If you’ve ever tried to make it from the end of the drive-through line all the way home without digging into your golden crispy lunch, you know how addicting fried foods can be. The bad news? A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who frequently ate fried food were at a greater risk of developing heart disease.

We’ve been told this before — yet we keep eating buckets of fried chicken. It’s the fat in the breading that makes it impossible to resist. Chicken fried in oil tastes amazing, there’s no denying that. Baked or grilled chicken, which are much healthier, still taste good. You just have to give them a shot.

Why can’t we stop eating bad food?

Chinese take out food in boxes

There are reasons as to why we just love bad foods. | iStock.com/rez-art

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study brings up an interesting question: Why do we keep eating foods that are bad for us? While there is a lot of health misinformation out there, when it comes to nutrition, it’s not always about a lack of knowledge. We know fried food is bad. But we don’t change our eating habits. According to some research, this could be because of how our brains are wired. Once you form a habit, it can become extremely difficult to break. When you continuously eat for comfort, or to feel better, or because it’s easier, “rewiring” your brain isn’t something that happens in a day. Only after much repetition and practice does changing your eating habits become a little easier.

Keep in mind, not all of these foods are bad for you in moderation. Eating healthier doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop eating anything on this list. Look for healthier ways to prepare your favorite convenience foods at home. Enjoy yourself — just don’t overdo it.