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Illustration of a smoking man with fries, a hamburger, a donut and a hot dog in the background.  Image credit: iStock

Can highly processed foods be addictive?

It’s a question researchers have debated for years, since unhealthy diets are often fueled by foods loaded with refined carbohydrates and added fats.

Study (PDF): Highly processed foods can be considered addictive substances according to established scientific criteria

To find a resolution, a new analysis from the University of Michigan and Virginia Tech took the criteria used in a 1988 US surgeon general’s report that found tobacco addictive and applied it to food.

By the criteria established for tobacco, the findings indicate that highly processed foods can be addictive, said lead author Ashley Gearhardt, associate professor of psychology at UM, and Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, assistant professor at the Institute for Biomedical Research Fralin at Virginia Tech.

Indeed, the addictive potential of foods such as potato chips, cookies, ice cream, and potato chips may be a key contributing factor to the high public health costs associated with a food environment dominated by cheap, accessible, and highly processed foods. very commercialized. the researchers said.

The research, published in the current issue of Addiction, provides 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 back (even in the face of life-threatening illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease)
  • They can change the way we feel and cause changes in the brain that are similar in magnitude to the nicotine in tobacco products.
  • They are very reinforcing
  • They trigger intense cravings and desires

Ashley GearhardtAshley Gearhardt

“It’s important to note that there is no biomarker in the brain that tells us whether something is addictive or not,” Gearhardt said. “Identifying that tobacco products were addictive really came down to these four criteria, (which) have withstood decades of scientific evaluation. Highly processed foods meet all of these criteria.”

DiFeliceantonio said the ability of highly processed foods to quickly deliver abnormally high doses of refined carbohydrates and fats appears to be 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, Gearhardt said.

When the Surgeon General’s report was published more than 30 years ago, tobacco products were the leading cause of preventable death. But many people and tobacco manufacturers resisted accepting its addictive and harmful nature.

“This delayed the implementation of effective strategies to address this public health crisis, which cost millions of lives,” said Gearhardt, who directs the Food and Addiction Science and Treatment Laboratory at the UM

“When we realized that tobacco products were addictive, it made us realize that smoking wasn’t just an option for adults, people were getting hooked and couldn’t stop even when they really wanted to. It seems the same goes for highly processed foods and this is particularly worrying because children are an important target of advertising for these products.”

Poor diets dominated by highly processed foods now contribute to preventable deaths on a par with cigarettes. Similar to tobacco products, the food industry designs its highly processed foods to be intensely rewarding and difficult to resist, the researchers said.

“It’s time to stop thinking of highly processed foods as foods, but as highly refined substances that can be addictive,” DiFeliceantonio said.

Source: Highly processed foods can be considered addictive like tobacco products

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