Ultra-processed foods may be as addictive as tobacco

Ultra-processed foods may be as addictive as tobacco
Ultra-processed foods may be as addictive as tobacco

Who has never had the feeling of devouring a bag of chips or eating more M&M’s than expected? More and more empirical studies tend to prove that this phenomenon is not the result of a lack of willpower, but that it could be due to an addiction to ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods can make us addicted because they trigger cravings, compulsive buying, and other characteristics associated with tobacco or alcohol use disorders. More than 20% of adults and 15% of children and adolescents show signs of addiction to ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods are made in factories on industrial scales, not in the home kitchen. They contain ingredients modified and combined to increase their fat, sugar and/or salt content. According to Evan Forman, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Drexel University in Philadelphia who has studied food addiction, these products also contain many flavorings and additives that make them so appealing that one cannot resist it.

These foods include snacks, cereals, most fast foods, mass-produced breads, pastries and desserts, reconstituted fish and meat products such as sausages, hot dogs and fish sticks, soft drinks, ice cream and candy, as well as many other packaged products found in the middle aisles of supermarkets. It is estimated that these foods comprise a little more than 30% of the food consumed in France.

“I think we don’t realize that most of the time we don’t decide what we eat,” says Evan Forman. “These foods activate our brain’s reward system too powerfully. »

When numerous international experts gathered in mid-May for the International Food Addiction Consensus Conference in London, they found “sufficient evidence” that one can become addicted to ultra-processed foods and that this can occur with or without eating disorders (EDBs) like binge eating disorder, although people with EDs suffered disproportionately from them.

The idea that certain foods can lead to addictive behaviors has been around for several decades. This idea has been around since studies of rats in the 1980s showed that dopamine reward system activity in their brains increased significantly when they pressed a lever for a food reward. This is a similar, although less intense, reaction to that seen during cocaine self-administration.

But over the past decade, with the number of obese people increasing, scientists have begun to evaluate the food and beverage changes that could be the cause. The impact of addiction to ultra-processed foods could no longer be ignored.

For most of human history, survival depended on sufficient motivation to seek out fatty and sweet foods, which evolution rewards with the release of feel-good substances such as dopamine.

“In a food environment weighed down by ultra-processed foods, the brain confuses harmful experiences and substances with experiences and substances that promote survival,” says David Wiss, a registered dietitian and food addiction researcher in Los Angeles, who participated in the London conference.

Ultra-processed foods “deliver abnormally high doses in an abnormally rapid manner, often in abnormally high combinations of so-called reward ingredients,” says Ashley Gearhardt, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and one of the leading researchers in this field.

In addition to chemicals present in the brain, recent research also implicates the intestinal microbiota. People with heavier builds who are addicted to ultra-processed foods would be more likely to have a microbial composition similar to that of people with a favorable background for addiction.

Cravings are a key hallmark of addiction and are easily observed with ultra-processed foods, says Ashley Gearhardt. “You won’t go out of your way to buy broccoli, but people can say: I wanted a donut made in this very specific place, so I drove forty minutes, only to eat an entire box on the parking lot, even though I have type 2 diabetes,” she says.

Withdrawal symptoms are another hallmark of addiction. A research update published in May, of which Evan Forman co-authored, provided preliminary evidence of withdrawal symptoms when ultra-processed foods are removed from the diet.

“The extent to which you could see the rats’ teeth chattering or people complaining of headaches, fatigue and irritability when they stopped eating these foods surprised me,” says Forman.

A study published by Ashley Gearhardt in 2022 applied the same criteria to these foods that were used in the 1988 U.S. Surgeon General’s report to determine whether tobacco industry products were addictive. She concluded that these foods met all the criteria. Ultra-processed foods can trigger compulsive behaviors, as Ashley Gearhardt found, citing studies in which obese rats ignored their standard food and risked electric shocks to obtain industrial cakes and chocolates. These foods are rewarding enough to encourage repeated consumption. They also have effects on mood, with “euphoric” effects after the consumption of certain foods, such as after the consumption of nicotine in smokers.

Because ultra-processed foods are manufactured to produce complex tastes, scientists don’t know whether all ingredients or just some of them have addictive properties.

Eating them often leads to weight gain, probably because it’s easy to eat more than intended. When twenty people were randomly assigned between an ultra-processed diet and an all-unprocessed food diet for two weeks and instructed to eat as much as they wanted, the ultra-processed diet group consumed 500 more calories each day.

The thinnest people can also present forms of addiction. “There are people who are normal or even underweight who have these symptoms,” says Wiss, who may have eliminated extra calories at the gym or who are not genetically predisposed to gaining a lot of weight.

One of the main problems is that people become familiar with the intense flavors of ultra-processed foods and are less satisfied when eating natural foods.

“The real consequence is that we have teenagers who are completely turned off by lentils and broccoli,” Wiss says.

National Geographic contacted major food companies Kraft Heinz, General Mills and Unilever for comment and received only one response from their trade group, the Consumer Brands Association.

“The demonization of convenience foods could limit access to nutritious foods and encourage avoidance,” they say. “Giving consumers clear nutritional information and preserving their freedom of choice so that they can make the right decisions based on their personal health goals should be the priority for public health guidance.” The group also notes that the term “ultra-processed” does not have a clear definition and “could lead to confusion for the consumer.” »

Ashley Gearhardt wants clear nutritional information to be provided and warning labels to be mandatory on packaging, as is the case for cigarettes. In the meantime, consumers are left to their own devices and must strive to choose foods with as few unnatural ingredients as possible. Still according to Ashley Gearhardt, it is also essential to put an end to the marketing of these products to children.

Ultra-processed foods are popular because they are very convenient. You can buy them at vending machines and gas stations, and buying ready-made meals or going to fast food can seem like a solution when you don’t have time to cook.

The question of how to treat people with severe food addiction remains open. Some point to the effectiveness of GLP-1 drugs such as Ozempic, which users say reduce the urge to eat highly palatable foods. The injections also reduce alcohol cravings, supporting the idea of ​​a common chronic brain disease pathway.

Preliminary results from a study Wiss co-authored show that weekly individual and group psychological and educational support, combined with a comprehensive diet plan, is successful.

“It’s very different from traditional diet advice, where you’ve been told what to do, and if you don’t succeed, you have to try harder. It’s about offering support based on the hypothesis that this is a brain disorder that requires consistent behavioral modification, ideas and community, all to support recalibration of the brain,” explains Wiss .

Gearhardt is optimistic that the dangers of ultra-processed foods will soon be common knowledge, just like the dangers of smoking. “Smoking used to be so common that we were oblivious to the fact that people were dying from it,” she says. “I think we will also understand what the dangers posed by ultra-processed foods are. »

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