When a milder drug like pot leads people to taking harder drugs – like heroin – experts call that milder drug a “gateway drug."

And believe it or not, new research shows there are certain “gateway foods” that can have the same effect because they open the door for an avalanche of bad eating choices that can derail your diet! That’s the message from psychologist Dr. Gary Wenk, who wrote about gateway foods in his new book Your Brain On Food. He says from your brain’s point of view, there’s no difference between eating certain snacks and taking certain drugs – because they both can have an addictive effect on your mind and body. It’s why a slice of pizza, for example, can trigger a craving that leads to eating candy, chips, ice cream, and more – until you’ve gone through every snack in the fridge.

Why does that happen? Dr. Wenk says it’s because fatty, sugary foods activate the reward portion of your brain - which is the same area stimulated by drugs and alcohol. That triggers the release of dopamine, the feel-good chemical that increases your food cravings. And at the same time, your nervous system responds by secreting insulin, which makes you want to eat more.

So, how can you avoid giving in to “gateway foods”? Dr. Wenk says one way is to distract your brain the moment a craving hits. For example: Research shows that if you engage your brain solving word puzzles, it won’t have enough energy to think about food at the same time.

Also, try following a bite of something unhealthy with healthier foods – like an apple, or baby carrots. That way, you’ll get the satisfaction of tasting your favorite gateway food without doing so much damage to your diet.