Researchers argue that processed foods such as crackers and chips are addictive, much like tobacco

Processed foods such as packaged cookies and potato chips can be addictive — and this classification could support policies that improve Americans’ health and even save lives, researchers said in a new research paper in the journal Addiction.

While some previous research has supported the controversial concept of food addiction, the study authors are the first to claim that such addiction is possible using scientific standards defined for tobacco products.

By classifying some foods as addictive, the researchers say, manufacturers could better hold manufacturers accountable and improve treatments for people who feel powerless about foods like cake and french fries.

“In tobacco, the understanding of these products wasn’t just ‘habit-forming’, it was really addictive public health approaches that included adding warning labels, restricting advertising to children, and economic incentives to avoid tobacco products,” lead author Ashley Gerhardt told.

“This led to one of the greatest public health victories of the modern era and saved millions of lives,” she said. “Given the widespread public health costs associated with highly processed foods, I would like to see similar approaches occur to change the food environment dominated by highly processed foods that increase profits over health.”

Tobacco and fast food have similar characteristics

To reach their conclusion, Gerhardt, a psychologist who directs the University of Michigan’s Treatment and Addiction Sciences and Science Laboratory, and co-author Alexandra DeFelicintonio, an appetite neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, looked at the criteria the U.S. Surgeon General used to identify cigarettes as an addiction in 1988: They cause compulsive use, lead To the mood-altering effects, greatly enhanced.

The researchers also included “can elicit cravings” as a fourth criteria, based on the past few decades of addiction research.

Point by point, Gerhardt and Dephilicintonio provided evidence that they believe highly processed foods, or HPFs, meet each standard.

For example, they say that the fact that most people continue to eat such foods even when they face serious diet-related health consequences such as diabetes is evidence that HPFs can induce compulsive use.

As for the effects of HPF on mood, the study authors point to research showing that sweets lead to high rates of “high” and that junk foods stimulate a dopamine response in the brain’s reward centers like nicotine.

“We see that people use tobacco products and HPFs for many of the same reasons — to decrease negative moods and increase positive moods — and the degree to which these substances alter mood is very similar,” Gerhardt told.

Researchers say that HPFs are “boosted” because, among other reasons, people eat them past the satiety point.

HPFs meet the “cravings” criterion in part because research shows that for them cravings activate similar brain pathways as other addictive substances.

“It is noteworthy that there is no biomarker in the brain that tells us whether or not something is addictive. Determining that tobacco products were truly addictive boils down to these four criteria and these criteria have withstood decades of scientific evaluation,” Gerhardt said in a press release. . “Highly processed foods meet every one of these criteria.”

Eating disorder specialists say the term “food addiction” promotes diet culture

It has long been debated in the medical community whether sugary or fatty foods are addictive.

A 2014 review of studies in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found little evidence that the brain responds to food in the same way that it responds to, say, opioids. But that doesn’t mean that some people can’t experience addictive behaviors around certain foods, evidence and plenty of anecdotes show.

Labeling certain foods as addictive can backfire, said Lisa de Bruel, a clinical social worker in Massachusetts who treats people with substance abuse and eating disorders.

For example, it can make fun satisfying. The search for high-calorie foods is central to our DNA. “The reward pathway has evolved to make sure we do things that ensure our survival,” she said, like eating rich foods, having sex, and caring for our children.

Food also doesn’t seem to meet another key property of the addictive substance: tolerance, or the need for more and more of it over time to achieve the same “high” level, registered dietitian Tansi Bogon writes on her blog.

Some experts, including Du Breuil, also argue that the solution to addiction — abstinence — goes against intuitive eating, which has been shown to heal an unhealthy relationship with food.

If you have a history of dieting or banning certain foods, “you’ve been creating this false feeling of scarcity, and when you stop doing that, the food loses its ‘addictive’ nature,” de Brill said. “I’ve seen it over and over again.”

De Brill added that the food addiction narrative can be viewed as a fat hater, and weight stigma can lead people with larger bodies to overeat less healthy foods.

Defamation of people who feel out of control around highly processed foods

She told Gerhardt that her work can help destigmatize people who feel out of control around heavily processed foods, including those with obesity or binge eating disorder, “by invoking the role of HPFs and the food industry in creating these products.”

Some research already shows that the food addiction model can reduce the blame and fear of obesity.

Ultimately, the study authors say, denying the addictive nature of processed foods will only delay actions that could save lives — a mistake they don’t want the United States to repeat from the years lost before tobacco was considered addictive.

“Unlike smoking, we all need to eat,” they wrote in the paper. “In the past 40 years, HPFs have become familiar substances that dominate the food environment, but we cannot lose sight of the importance of their addictive and harmful potential.”


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