Ultra-processed foods like sugary drinks, potato chips and ready meals can cause withdrawal symptoms similar to people trying to quit smoking, prompting a team of scientists to advocate for the labelling of certain products as “addictive.”
A report published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that addiction to ultra-processed food affects 14 per cent of adults and 12 per cent of children around the world.
Meanwhile, addiction to tobacco impacts 18 per cent of adults globally, the report stated.
“We have some really good evidence associating these ultra-processed foods with things like cancer and cardiovascular disease,” Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, co-author of the analysis and neuroscientist with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in the U.S., told Global News.
“But what we don’t know is what is it about these foods that make people overconsume them, that leads them to keep eating them despite negative consequences.”
Why processed food consumption continues to increase
In order to find what foods have the potential to become addictive, the researchers looked at 281 recent studies from 36 different countries. Their findings showed that foods high in refined carbohydrates, such as sugars, breakfast cereal and pasta, have the potential to be addictive.
“The ultra-processed foods are foods that are industrially produced,” DiFeliceantonio said.
“That means they don’t come out of your home kitchen. They are made by processes and have ingredients in them that are not available to the home cook. So you can think of things (like) unpronounceable ingredients on the back of a package.”
If a product comes in a crinkly package at the grocery store, she said it’s likely to be an ultra-processed item.
Minimally processed foods comprise frozen fruits and vegetables, pasteurized milk and fermented plain yogurts. Processed foods are whole foods with added salt, sugar or fat, like canned fruits and vegetables, cheeses and breads.
Almost half (46 per cent) of total daily calories consumed by Canadians come from ultra-processed foods, according to a 2015 Statistics Canada report. The report shows that children and youth were the highest consumers, with more than 50 per cent of their diets made up of ultra-processed foods.
Ultra-processed foods and addiction
Addictive behaviours around ultra-processed food may meet the criteria for diagnosis of use disorder in some people, the researchers argued.
This is because some people who eat these foods may have less control over their food intake, experience intense cravings, have withdrawal symptoms and continue to use despite such consequences as obesity, binge eating disorder, poorer physical and mental health and lower quality of life, the report explained.
Researchers gave the example of an apple, salmon and a chocolate bar. The apple has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of roughly one to zero, while the salmon has a ratio of zero to one. In contrast, the chocolate bar has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio of one to one, which appears to increase a food’s addictive potential, the researchers state.
Refined carbohydrates or fats evoke similar levels of extracellular dopamine in the brain to those seen with addictive substances such as nicotine and alcohol, the report found.
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“I think that a lot of people in the narrative around ultra-processed food consumption and around body weight has really been one of personal choice, of ‘people can’t stop eating these foods because they lack willpower,’” DiFeliceantonio said.
However, she believes the research debunks this belief, as these foods are intentionally engineered to be “irresistible and delicious.”
“They’re everywhere; you can’t go to the grocery store without seeing them right before you check out or at the gas station. Our environment is really just inundated with these cues with these foods. And then we’re asking people to just not eat them and that doesn’t make any sense to me,” she added.
Breaking the food addiction cycle
Dominic Wozniak, a registered psychotherapist in Toronto, said just like the use of drugs or other substances, food can also provide temporary comfort.
“And of course, with the more ultra-processed food, the more comforting it can feel in the moment,” he said. “It can take us away from other problems we have in our lives that we’re trying to cope with.”
With food addiction, Wozniak stressed that people who want to break the cycle “don’t have to do it alone.”
Getting help from a therapist or health-care professional can give people the proper tools to overcome it, he said.
Signs that you may have a food addiction
“They don’t have to do this or do this alone and only through willpower; oftentimes that can make things worse when they don’t seek out help. There are many people who are willing to listen and willing to help without judgment and actually trying to collaborate.”
The researchers of the report said although ultra-processed food addiction is not currently an official diagnosis, they believe such recognition would be “likely to promote research into its clinical management.”
“Viewing some foods as addictive could lead to novel approaches in the realm of social justice, clinical care, and public policy,” they stated in the report.
They concluded that although the report does not fully account for the reasons why food addiction happens, it does highlight the need for more research in order to put appropriate safeguards in place.
— with files from Global News’ Katherine Ward
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