Researchers have stated that ultra-processed foods can have the same effect as drugs, leading to intense cravings, symptoms of withdrawal, and continued consumption despite dangerous consequences.
They propose that labeling ultra-processed foods (UPFs) as “addictive” could help some individuals modify their behavior.
It is estimated that one in seven adults and one in eight children could be addicted to UPFs, and individuals who consume foods high in fat and carbohydrates could meet the criteria for a substance use disorder diagnosis.
Behaviors that could meet these criteria include intense cravings, withdrawal symptoms, less control over intake, and continued use despite consequences such as obesity, binge eating disorder, poorer physical and mental health, and lower quality of life, according to the scientists.
A team of international researchers reviewed 281 studies from 36 different countries and found that “ultra-processed food addiction” is estimated to occur in 14% of adults and 12% of children.
They suggest that if certain foods high in carbohydrates and fats are viewed as “addictive,” it could potentially improve health through changes to social, clinical, and political policies.
Ashley Gearhardt, the corresponding author of the article and a psychology professor at the University of Michigan in the US, said, “There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of food addiction. By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”
The authors of the paper, published in The BMJ, provided an example of a portion of salmon and a chocolate bar to illustrate their point. The salmon has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of roughly 0-to-1, while the chocolate bar has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of 1-to-1, which appears to increase its addictive potential.
Co-author Professor Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in the US, said, “Many ultra-processed foods have higher levels of both. That combination has a different effect on the brain.”
The researchers, from the US, Brazil, and Spain, explained that refined carbohydrates or fats can evoke similar levels of extracellular dopamine in the brain striatum as addictive substances like nicotine and alcohol. Based on these behavioral and biological parallels, foods that deliver high levels of refined carbohydrates or added fats are strong candidates for addictive substances.
The speed at which these foods deliver carbohydrates and fats to the gut could also contribute to their addictive potential, according to the authors.
They also suggested that food additives may contribute to the “addictiveness of UPFs.” While these additives are unlikely to be addictive on their own, they could enhance the effects of calories in the gut and become powerful reinforcers.
The researchers stressed that not all foods have addictive potential. However, they concluded that UPFs high in refined carbohydrates and fats are clearly consumed in addictive patterns and are leading to negative health outcomes.
They added that understanding these foods as addictive could lead to novel approaches in social justice, clinical care, and policy approaches.