Weight Loss

Ultra-Processed Foods are as Addictive as Cigarettes

We’ve shared over a series of posts that ultra-processed foods (UPFs) carry many risks. They can increase the risk of dementia, depression, they boost the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. And consuming ultra-processed foods can also increase the likelihood of all-cause mortality, some types of cancer, and they lack essential nutrients.

We have shared that processed foods have been shown to cause a reaction in the brain- specifically the reward system- which results in people wanting more. The body is designed to ensure survival. So, whatever it takes to survive, the body will encourage. One example is the primal need to seek out food and water. We eat, satisfy our basic needs, and the brain releases those feel-good hormones, like dopamine, in response. Once exposed, and the results enjoyed, the brain is hard wired to seek out more. But unlike healthy foods, today’s junk foods cause a much more powerful reward response than it can get from healthy foods. That means a tub of ice cream is far more rewarding than an apple and the body’s physiological reactions to the two foods favors eating the less nutritious option.

Sources share that the reaction is similar to what happens to our bodies when we consume alcohol, cigarettes or other addictive substances. While we know that ethanol and nicotine are the addictive properties in alcohol and cigarettes, researchers still don’t know what exactly causes UPFs to have a similar effect. Perhaps it’s the fat, sugar or salt content. The way it is processed or the taste, texture or easy accessibility. Whatever the cause, manufacturers specifically devise combinations to make these foods irresistible.

The most recent analysis, which included 281 studies in 36 countries, published in the British Medical Journal this month, found that your inability to put down the ice cream, chips and candy may have less to do with your self-control and more to do with the addictive quality of ultra-processed foods or UPFs.

“The combination of refined carbohydrates and fats often found in UPFs seems to have a supra-additive effect on brain reward systems, above either macronutrient alone, which may increase the addictive potential of these foods,” the study said.

Using the same guidelines for measuring substance abuse, the researchers found that 14% of adults and 12% of children were addicted to ultra-processed foods.

An enlightening way to view the topic was explained by Chris van Tulleken, a doctor and the author of Ultra-Processed People; while food itself is not addictive, “UPF is not really food. The purpose of food is to provide nourishment. UPF’s primary purpose is profit and financial growth.”

That’s food for thought!

Still, knowing the downfalls of UPFs is different than making a complete shift to remove or decrease how much you consume. The latest analysis focused on ultra-processed foods. But when pinpointing how to reduce your overall intake of processed foods, consider that it’s not just fast food, candy, chips, and the usual suspects. There is a spectrum of what is considered processed:

  • Minimally processed foods — such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables and roasted nuts — often are simply pre-prepped for convenience.
  • Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna.
  • Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.
  • Ready-to-eat foods — such as crackers, granola and deli meat — are more heavily processed.
  • The most heavily processed foods (referred to as ultra-processed) often are pre-made meals including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners, chips, candy, packaged soups, etc. that go through multiple processes.

Make the first step by not UPF into your home. Find alternatives for the food items you’re accustomed to that are most processed. If you love chips, try something else crunchy and salty like homemade, lightly buttered popcorn. Can’t go without ice cream? Choose a brand that is minimally processed or try a homemade option like this Strawberry sorbet that only contains strawberries, lemon juice, and honey! You can even purchase an inexpensive device, like this one, that turns any frozen fruit into soft serve ice cream. This has become my go-to desert at night. 

It will take time and effort to shift away from easily accessible UPFs, but your body will thank you.

You can read our previous posts about processed foods below.

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