Extra-processed foods can be addictive, study finds

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In a study from the University of Michigan and elsewhere, scientists found that just like tobacco products, highly processed foods can be addictive.

Researchers have debated the question for years as unhealthy diets are often fueled by foods loaded with refined carbohydrates and added fats.

In the study, the team took the criteria used in a 1988 US Surgeon General’s report that established that tobacco was addictive and applied it to food.

Based on the criteria set for tobacco, the team found 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 and can 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.

Poor diets dominated by highly processed foods now contribute to early deaths on par with cigarettes.

Similar to tobacco products, the food industry designs their highly processed foods to be intensely rewarding and hard to resist.

If you care about nutrition, please read studies about how Mediterranean diet could protect your brain health, and Vitamin D could help reduce depression symptoms.

For more information about health, please see recent studies about plant nutrients that could help reduce high blood pressure, and these antioxidants could help reduce dementia risk.

The study was conducted by Ashley Gearhardt et al and published in the journal Addiction.

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