Researchers have discovered an alarming truth – some people are addicted to snacks in the same way that others are addicted to nicotine, cocaine, or heroin. A recent analysis of 281 studies conducted across 36 countries has revealed that 14% of adults are addicted to
sweets and snacks. This addiction is not merely a craving but a genuine dependence on processed foods.
The study, led by University of Michigan’s Ashley Gearhardt, utilized the Yale Food Addiction Scale to diagnose food addiction, applying the same criteria used to identify substance addiction.
The researchers found that processed foods, including hot dogs, ice cream, cookies, sodas, and sugary cereals, have previously been linked to cognitive decline, cancer, psychological distress, and even premature death.
“The combination of refined carbohydrates and fats often found in [ultra-processed foods] seems to have a supra-additive effect on brain reward systems, above either macronutrient alone, which may increase the addictive potential of these foods,” wrote Gearhardt and the study’s authors in their new study, published in The BMJ. Furthermore, researcher Chris van Tulleken highlighted the addictive nature of processed foods, stating that many processed foods are addictive, and food addiction is primarily associated with these products.
Why are we addicted to junk food?
While the exact cause of this addiction remains uncertain, experts believe it may be a combination of factors rather than a single component, unlike nicotine in tobacco. Natural foods tend to contain either higher levels of carbohydrates or fats, but not both. In contrast, processed foods contain disproportionately high levels of both. For instance, an apple has 55 calories of carbohydrates and less than 2 calories of fat, while a chocolate bar contains 237 calories of carbohydrates and 266 calories of fat.
Previous research has shown that sugary or fatty foods make healthier alternatives less appealing, leading to overeating and weight gain. Highly processed foods trigger a dopamine surge followed by a sudden drop, creating an endless cycle of cravings, consumption, and temporary satisfaction, similar to the experiences of individuals addicted to alcohol or drugs. The study also noted that food additives could enhance the addictive effects of processed foods, although not everyone may be susceptible to their addictive properties.
Scientists concerned about the health hazards associated with processed foods suggest that some products should come with addiction warnings, similar to cigarettes, as these items are ubiquitous in our society. Moderation is key, with experts recommending that no more than 10% to 20% of our daily calorie intake should come from processed foods, according to Healthline. To minimize consumption, van Tulleken advises people to question whether certain products can truly be considered food.