An Edible ‘Supervillain’: Why You’re Powerless Against Pizza

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The first time I knew I had an addiction was in college. I hit rock bottom by eating cold pizza crust the next day (and possibly the day after that) out of the opened pizza boxes scattered about my dorm room.

If this sounds at all familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve been there. In fact, the real reason we don’t have an AA for pizza is simple: there’s not a rec room in existence that can house pretty much everyone on the planet.

According to Dr. Stephen Neabore of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine -- who as a former New York resident, is a recovering pizza addict himself -- there are several scientific reasons that cause and fuel this addiction, and not just because pizza is laced with "dairy crack." Although, yes, that too.

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The supervillain (or superhero?) of foods

"I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t like pizza," Dr. Neabore muses. "When you think about it, you have taste receptors for sugar, salt, and even for fat -- and pizza meets all of those. It’s like someone created a supervillain of the food category; it’s hard to compete with."

Not sure if Dr. Neabore meant to say "superhero" or "supervillain," but suffice to say that pizza is some kind of "super" in terms of taste (plus all that sugar, salt, and fat stuff, too). And while you might be tempted to respond, "Hey, that's a good thing!" hold your anchovies for just a second.

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This is your brain on pizza

If you're one of the naysayers who think that pizza, which was clearly invented to advance the common good, couldn't possibly have deleterious effects, well, you might want to reconsider.

"When we think of addiction, we most often think of alcohol, drugs, and gambling; I wouldn’t necessarily put pizza in the same category of those things, but there are similarities," Neabore said. "If you take someone who is addicted to heroin, whether they’re doing it or you show them a picture of it, in an MRI you would see it light up on the brain."

It's not just a thought experiment; neuroimaging of obese people shows an altered reward response characteristic of addiction, and other researchers have warned of the negative consequences that come with dismissing food addictions.

But come on... pizza addiction? This isn't some elaborate hoax by scientists to secure more grant money? "The reason studies show food like pizza is addictive is they see the same thing happen [as in patients with substance addictions]," explains Dr. Neabore. "If you show them a picture of pizza or they’re eating it, the same area of the brain would light up -- the same place that lights up for heroin."

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You can actually get strung out on pizza

Like with any good addiction, it's not just your brain that feels the effects; pizza wreaks havoc on your body, too. It's all thanks to that chewy dough made of white flour, the fatty cheese, plus the sugar in the sauce. The physiology of homeostasis creates a pattern that literally makes you hungry for more.

"When you make your blood sugar go up really quick -- like when you eat something high in sugar and fat like pizza -- it rebounds, meaning it actually drops below where you originally started a few hours later. So you feel hungry again," Dr. Neabore says. "Those carbohydrates break down to simple sugars and cause a spike and a drop in the sugar. And that drop is what leads to food cravings. Your body is going to want more sugar to replace what you’ve lost."

Well, that sounds remarkably like... an ADDICTION! It all comes down to the damn-near-unbreakable cycle of reward responses in your brain. Dr. Neabore himself likens it to substance abuse, if only analogously, noting, "People who use drugs, they say that high is better than anything you can get. But the other side is the rebound -- the low is actually worse; they’re sadder than they could possibly be. It’s the same circuit in the brain affected by both of these things. Our bodies almost don’t know how to handle it. It’s a super stimulus; it’s something we get completely overtaken by. It’s also something we’re still learning how to handle, and a lot of people obviously can’t."

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Pizza’s tastiness is just not natural... which is exactly why our body wants it

As any good Paleo bro at your local CrossFit box (don't call it a gym!) will tell you, our Paleo ancestors didn't just call up Domino's and order an extra large with pepperoni. They had to hunt an actual Domino, which happened very rarely.

Wait, no. Humans didn't have pizza until very recently. And that may be part of the problem.

"With pizza, you’re getting a high amount of things that you don’t really find in nature. You can’t pick off a tree anything that’s going to give you that same sensation that pizza is going to give you. Despite what the government tells you about pizza being a vegetable, you don’t walk by a field of pizza anywhere.”

Does this mean... the government lies?

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What to do about your addiction

It's easy to dismiss this as hyperbolic nonsense that has no grounding in the "real world," where plenty of people eat pizza and go about their business just fine. But "going about your business just fine" isn't a great standard by which to judge pizza's addictive qualities, or its effect on your health. Everyone knows cigarettes are addictive and cause cancer, but plenty of people smoke them for years and live their lives just fine... until they get cancer. Even harder drugs like heroin can string someone along for years, decades in some cases, before finally dealing the death blow.

The point is, if you eat pizza, and nothing but pizza, all the time, it's going to kill you. One way or another. Because your body just wasn't designed for pizza, even though it might seem like a gift from the heavens.

"We haven’t evolved with foods like pizza, cheeseburgers, and Twinkies. These are relatively new things of humans, the same way heroin and cocaine are new things for humans," Dr. Neabore points out. "People weren’t eating this stuff back in Columbus’ day."

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Liz Newman is a freelance writer for Thrillist, and could really use a separate support group for “pizza ranch dippers.” She has been clean for exactly zero days. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @lizn813.