In a study from the University of Michigan and Virginia Tech, scientists found that highly processed foods may be addictive like tobacco.
Their analysis took the criteria used in a 1988 U.S. Surgeon General’s report that established that tobacco was addictive and applied it to food.
Based on the criteria set for tobacco, the findings showed that highly processed foods can be addictive.
In fact, the addictive potential for food such as potato chips, cookies, ice cream and French fries may be a key factor contributing to the high public health costs linked to a food environment dominated by cheap, accessible and heavily marketed highly processed foods.
The research offers evidence that highly processed foods meet the same criteria used to identify cigarettes as an addictive substance:
They trigger compulsive use where people are unable to quit or cut down (even in the face of life-threatening diseases like diabetes and heart disease);
They can change the way we feel and cause changes in the brain that are of a similar magnitude as the nicotine in tobacco products;
They are highly reinforcing; They trigger intense urges and cravings.
The team says the ability of highly processed foods to rapidly deliver unnaturally high doses of refined carbohydrates and fat appears key to their addictive potential.
Highly processed foods contain complex substances that cannot be simplified to a single chemical agent acting through a specific central mechanism.
The same can be said for industrial tobacco products, which contain thousands of chemicals including nicotine.
When the Surgeon General’s report was released more than 30 years ago, tobacco products were the largest cause of preventable death. But many people and tobacco manufacturers resisted accepting their addictive and harmful nature.
The team says this delayed the implementation of effective strategies to address this public health crisis, which cost millions of lives.
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The study was conducted by Ashley Gearhardt et al and published in Addiction.
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