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Study: Foods like ice cream, chips and candy are just as addictive as cigarettes or heroin

You're favorite guilty pleasure snack may be just as addictive as cigarettes or heroin, a new study reveals.

Sarah Al-arshani, USA Today, Oct 23, 2023

An analysis of 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.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods have high fat, carbohydrate and sugar content. Additionally, they have very little to no nutritional value.

A 2019 article published in the the journal Public Health Nutrition describes them as "liable to overcompensation."

These foods include things like ice cream, chips, cheeseburgers, French fries, soda, cake, candy, and cookies.

UPFs have also been linked to a number of health issues including an increased risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease, cancer and depression in women. They've also been linked to cognitive decline like dementia.

Food addiction

Food addiction is not classified as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), a guide for healthcare professionals to diagnose mental disorders. However, there's been growing research into the topic in the last 20 years, according to the study.

“There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of ultra-processed food addiction,” Ashley Gearhardt, a University of Michigan professor and lead author of the study said news release. “By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”

Symptoms of a food addiction can include craving food even when you're already full, eating more of something than you intended or continuing to eat something despite negative consequences.

Chris van Tulleken, a doctor and the author of Ultra-Processed People told the Guardian that 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."

Our relationship with food

Gearhardt told the Guardian that UPFs have changed our body's relationship with food, mainly our reward system to fats and sugars.

“Our survival system has gone into hyper-overdrive," Gearhardt said.

That comes by way of dopamine. According to the study, when someone eats UPFs they get a spike in dopamine, which makes them feel good. They feel terrible once it crashes and then crave the good feeling. So, they seek out more UPF's.

That processes 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.

However, Van Tulleken told the Guardian, that not everyone will be addicted to them.

"Almost 90% of people can try alcohol and not develop a problematic relationship," he said.

"Many UPFs for many people are addictive, and when people experience food addiction, it is almost always to UPF products."

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