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processed food addiction

Do you have a a processed food addiction?

Fresh research has revealed that highly processed foods possess a level of addictiveness on par with substances like heroin, cocaine, and nicotine. Consequently, some healthcare professionals are urging cautionary labels on frequently consumed snacks like cookies and chips. This recent study, which scrutinized the results of almost 300 previous nutritional investigations, has been recently published in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal.


Dr. Ashley Gearhardt, a professor at the University of Michigan, led this study. Dr. Gearhardt had previously devised the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) by employing experts’ criteria in diagnosing substance addiction, which encompasses unmanageable and excessive consumption, cravings, and persistent intake despite potential negative health consequences.


Notably, food addiction is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), one of the most widely used diagnostic frameworks for mental health; yet, during the past 20 years, there has been a notable increase in studies in this field. The YFAS, designed to evaluate food addiction using DSM-5 criteria for drug use disorders within the context of dietary behaviors, is a major data source for this study.


Study Finds 14% of Adults Are Addicted to UPFs


In conducting the recent study, a group of researchers examined 281 prior investigations conducted across 36 countries. Their findings revealed that 14% of adults exhibit addiction tendencies towards ultra-processed foods (UPFs). These results raised concerns among the researchers due to the widespread presence of UPFs, including items like cookies, ice cream, sausages, sugary soft drinks, and breakfast cereals, in contemporary diets.


The research team noted in their new findings that UPFs, often characterized by a combination of refined carbohydrates and fats, appear to exert a synergistic influence on brain reward systems, surpassing the impact of either macronutrient in isolation. This heightened interaction potentially elevates the addictive potential of these food items, as stated by Gearhardt and the study’s authors.


The increasing prevalence of UPFs has been linked in previous research to severe medical conditions, such as cancer, premature mortality, cognitive decline, and mental health issues.


Chris van Tulleken, one of the study’s authors, conveyed to The Guardian that many individuals find UPFs addictive. When people grapple with food addiction, it is frequently tied to UPF products.


The precise mechanism by which UPFs trigger food addictions remains incompletely understood. Some experts posit that rather than a single substance serving as the primary catalyst for food addictions, the collective consumption of UPFs could play a pivotal role.


The researchers noted that while these UPFs may not be inherently addictive on their own, food additives may act as “reinforcers” of their caloric effects.


Food Addiction Similar to Drugs and Alcohol


Unprocessed, natural foods typically tend to be higher in either carbohydrates or fats, but not both simultaneously. Conversely, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) often exhibit an imbalanced excess of both fats and carbohydrates. Consuming UPFs triggers an initial surge in dopamine, followed by a sharp drop in this neurotransmitter. This pattern creates a cycle of craving, momentary satisfaction, and subsequent crash, akin to the dynamics seen with drugs and alcohol. However, it’s important to note that not everyone is susceptible to this cycle.


As Dr. van Tulleken points out, “Addictive products affect individuals differently. As nearly 90% of people can experiment with alcohol without developing problematic habits, many can try cigarettes or even cocaine without succumbing to addiction.”


Previous research has also shown that the consumption of sugary or fatty foods can diminish the appeal of healthier options, potentially leading to issues like overindulgence and weight gain. Unfortunately, avoiding UPFs has become a challenge for many individuals because processed foods have become pervasive in modern diets. Consequently, some health-conscious researchers propose that certain foods should come with warning labels, similar to those found on cigarettes and other tobacco products, due to their addictive properties.


Dr. van Tulleken aptly compares attempting to quit UPFs today to trying to quit smoking in the 1960s.


Fortunately, most substances are safe when used in moderation. As a result, reputable online medical resource Healthline recommends that processed foods should constitute no more than 10% to 20% of an individual’s daily calorie intake. To facilitate this, Dr. van Tulleken suggests making thoughtful food choices and asking oneself, “Is this genuinely food?” This approach can help individuals transition from addiction to a state of aversion.


Demands for Regulatory Measures and Public Awareness


The study’s revelations about the addictive nature of highly processed foods have spurred calls for regulatory action and an increased focus on public awareness.


Advocating Regulatory Measures: Health professionals and public health advocates are pressing for regulatory steps akin to those employed for substances like tobacco and alcohol. This could encompass introducing cautionary labels on highly processed foods to inform consumers about their addictive potential and the associated health hazards. Such labeling could serve as a crucial tool in helping individuals make more informed dietary choices.


Elevating Public Awareness: Enhancing public awareness stands as a fundamental strategy in addressing the problem of food addiction. Much like campaigns against smoking and excessive alcohol consumption have successfully raised awareness of health risks, efforts to educate the public about the addictive properties of processed foods can lead to more informed and health-conscious eating habits.


Health Education Initiatives: Schools, healthcare providers, and public health agencies can play a significant role in enlightening individuals about the dangers linked to consuming highly processed foods. By providing information about the addictive attributes of these products and their potential impact on well-being, people can make more deliberate decisions about their dietary choices.


Support and Treatment Options: Individuals grappling with food addiction require increased access to support and treatment services. Health systems can develop resources and treatment alternatives for those who find themselves ensnared by highly processed foods, offering a pathway to recovery and the cultivation of healthier eating habits.


Bottom Line


The study underscores the alarming addictive potential of highly processed foods, paralleling the addictiveness of drugs like heroin and cocaine. With calls for regulatory measures and heightened public awareness, addressing the pervasive presence of these foods in modern diets becomes crucial. As 14% of adults show addiction tendencies to ultra-processed foods and their synergistic impact on brain reward systems is recognized, it is imperative to develop strategies for informed dietary choices, support for those struggling with food addiction, and the introduction of cautionary labels to mitigate the health risks associated with these widely consumed products.





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