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- Ultra-processed foods that contain artificially high levels of fats and refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour are the ones people eat addictively.
- There is reason to believe that ultra-processed foods can really be considered addicting, instead of letting people overdo something they love.
- Tobacco and ultra-processed foods similarly alter moods by increasing feelings of pleasure and reducing negative feelings.
Every year, millions of Americans try to cut back on ultra-processed foods – industrial formulations that are typically high in added fat, refined carbohydrates, or both. Think cookies, cakes, chips and pizza.
For many, the desire to change what they eat is triggered by concerns about life-threatening health issues, like diabetes and heart disease. The impact of diet on health is no small problem. In fact, a recent multidisciplinary commission of 37 leading scientists from around the world identified unhealthy diets as a greater risk to human health than unprotected sex and the use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco combined. .
Many people know that most ultra-processed foods are not healthy. But the goal of reducing them can be so difficult that the majority of these attempts fail. Why?
In my food and addiction science and treatment lab at the University of Michigan, my colleagues and I are studying a largely overlooked factor: These ultra-processed foods can be addictive, sharing more in common with tobacco products. than with whole foods like apples or beans. .
Addicted to ultra-processed foods
I am a clinical psychologist studying the science of addiction, obesity and eating disorders. During my training at Yale University, it became clear to me that many people were showing classic signs of addiction in their relationship with ultra-processed foods – things like loss of control over consumption, intense food cravings and an inability to reduce in the face of negative consequences.
So my colleagues and I created the Yale Food Addiction Scale. It’s a measure that applies the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria used to diagnose other addiction disorders to identify people who may be addicted to ultra-processed foods.
According to our current estimates, 15% of Americans reach the threshold of food dependency, which is associated with diet-related illnesses, obesity and poor quality of life. This prevalence is remarkably in line with that of addictions to other legal and accessible substances. For example, 14% of people in the United States meet the criteria to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorders.
It is clear from our research that people do not experience this addictive attraction to all foods. Ultra-processed foods that contain artificially high levels of fats and refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour are the ones people eat addictively. For example, chocolate, ice cream, fries, pizza, and cookies are some of the foods that people find the most addicting. Unsurprisingly, people report that they are very unlikely to lose control while consuming broccoli, beans, and cucumbers.
But can these ultra-processed foods really be considered addicting? Or are people just abusing something they like? To help answer these questions, my colleagues and I turned to one of the last great debates in addiction science – whether tobacco is addictive.
When you may be addicted to tobacco
The idea that tobacco is addictive has been hotly contested for decades.
Unlike drugs like alcohol and opioids, tobacco products are not intoxicating and allow people to go about their daily lives while using them. Tobacco products also do not cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, unlike alcohol and opioids. And you hardly have to break the law to access or use tobacco.
The world’s largest tobacco companies – colloquially referred to as Big Tobacco – have often pointed out the difference between tobacco and “classic” addictive drugs. Growing doubt as to whether tobacco is really addictive could help them avoid being guilty of their industry’s practices and blame consumers for their choice to continue to smoke.
However, in 1988, the American Surgeon General officially identified tobacco products as addictive. This report directly contradicts Big Tobacco’s position that tobacco consumption is a matter of consumer choice driven by the taste and sensory effect of their products.
The Surgeon General has based much of the classification of tobacco products as addictive on their ability to trigger strong, often overwhelming cravings to use, despite a desire to quit smoking and in the face of potentially fatal health consequences. Another piece of evidence was the ability of tobacco products to quickly deliver high doses of nicotine, which made them very fortifying – users want to repeat the behavior that gets them more drugs. The last addiction criterion that tobacco met was its ability to alter mood – increase pleasure, reduce negative emotions – because nicotine affected the brain.
It is a common misconception that the designation was based on identifying a specific brain response to tobacco. In the 1980s, researchers knew that nicotine had some impact on the brain. But little was known at the time about how addictive drugs affect the brain. In fact, an objective biological marker of addiction – such as a specific, measurable brain response that confirms that a person is addicted to a substance – still does not exist.
The Surgeon General designating tobacco as an addictive product increased the percentage of the public who viewed smoking as addictive from 37% in 1980 to 74% in 2002. The scientific argument that cigarettes were addictive also made it more difficult for Big Tobacco to defend their practices. .
In 1998, Big Tobacco lost a legal battle that resulted in them paying billions of dollars to states to cover health costs related to smoking. The court ordered them to disclose secret documents showing that they were covering up the unhealthy and addictive nature of their products. In addition, the decision placed major restrictions on their ability to market their products, especially to young people.
Since 1980, the use of tobacco products in the United States has declined dramatically – a huge public health achievement.
Ultra-processed foods tick the same boxes
Ultra-processed foods all meet the same criteria as those used to designate tobacco as addictive.
Tobacco and ultra-processed foods similarly alter moods by increasing feelings of pleasure and reducing negative feelings. The high levels of refined carbohydrates and fats in ultra-processed foods powerfully activate the reward systems in the brain.
Ultra-processed foods are highly reinforcing – they can shape your behavior to keep you coming back for more. For example, teachers and parents are using ultra-processed foods to reward children’s good behavior to increase the likelihood that children will continue to behave. In rats, researchers have repeatedly found that sweet tastes are more reinforcing than even highly addictive drugs, like cocaine.
The high failure rates of diets painfully show that ultra-processed foods can trigger strong and often overwhelming cravings to use despite a desire to quit. On the other hand, nutritious and minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables and legumes do not meet these criteria of dependence.
Starting in the 1980s, the amount of ultra-processed unhealthy foods in the United States exploded. At the same time, tobacco companies Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds were buying out ultra-processed food and beverage companies, including General Foods, Kraft, Nabisco and Kool-Aid. Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds have used their scientific, marketing and industry knowledge to design and sell addicting and highly profitable tobacco products and applied them to their portfolios of ultra-processed foods.
Although these tobacco companies eventually sold their food brands to international food and beverage conglomerates in the 2000s, they had already left their mark on the modern food environment.
The current societal narrative around the ultra-processed foods that dominate today’s food environment is that the people who struggle to eat them in moderation – the majority of Americans – are just weak. It’s the same story used to explain why people couldn’t quit smoking. It ignores the fact that the industry that created cigarettes also developed and marketed many of these foods, deliberately trying to improve “cravability” and create “heavy users”.
The addictive nature of these ultra-processed foods undermines the free will and health of consumers in the service of profit. Yet there is an important difference between tobacco and ultra-processed foods. We all have to eat. No one can withdraw.
As with tobacco products, it will likely require industry regulation to reduce the popularity of ultra-processed foods and the health problems that accompany them.
Ashley Gearhardt is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan.
This article was first published by The conversation and has been republished here under a Creative Commons license.