Adults "addicted" to ultra-processed foods, claim American researchers

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Experts say it provides a similar dopamine high as nicotine or alcohol.

One in seven adults and one in eight children are addicted to ultra-processed foods, according to new research.

Researchers said the way some people consume foods that are high in fat and carbohydrates could “meet the criteria for diagnosis of substance use disorder”. Behaviours which could meet this criteria include: intense cravings, symptoms of withdrawal, less control over intake, and continued use despite such consequences as obesity, binge eating disorder, poorer physical and mental health, and lower quality of life, they said.

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A team of international researchers point to an analysis of 281 studies from 36 different countries. The review found that “ultra-processed food addiction” is estimated to occur in 14 per cent per cent of adults and 12 per cent of children.

Obesity and heavy drinking will put a strain on the NHS in the coming years. (Picture: Torwaiphoto/Adobe Stock)Obesity and heavy drinking will put a strain on the NHS in the coming years. (Picture: Torwaiphoto/Adobe Stock)
Obesity and heavy drinking will put a strain on the NHS in the coming years. (Picture: Torwaiphoto/Adobe Stock) | Torwaiphoto/Adobe Stock

Academics said that if some foods high in carbohydrates and fats are viewed as “addictive” it could potentially improve health through changes to social, clinical and political policies.

“There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of food addiction,” said Ashley Gearhardt, the article’s corresponding author and a psychology professor at the University of Michigan in the US.

“By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”

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Co-author Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in the US, added: “Given how prevalent these foods are – they make up 58 per cent of calories consumed in the United States – there is so much we don’t know.

“Many ultra-processed foods have higher levels of both. That combination has a different effect on the brain."

The authors of the paper, which has been published on The BMJ, gave the example of a portion of salmon and a chocolate bar – the salmon has a carbohydrate to fat ratio of roughly 0-to-1. In contrast, the chocolate bar has a carbohydrate to fat ratio of 1-to-1, which appears to increase a food’s addictive potential, they said.

The researchers, from the US, Brazil and Spain, said: “Refined carbohydrates or fats evoke similar levels of extracellular dopamine in the brain striatum to those seen with addictive substances such as nicotine and alcohol.

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“Based on these behavioural and biological parallels, foods that deliver high levels of refined carbohydrates or added fats are a strong candidate for an addictive substance.”

Food additives may also contribute to the “addictiveness of UPFs”, they said. While these additives, which are added to food for taste and to “improve the mouth feel” are unlikely to be addictive on their own, they could “become powerful reinforcers of the effects of calories in the gut”, they wrote.

But the academics stress that not all foods have addictive potential.

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