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Study compares food addiction to substance use disorder

New research looked at the addictive properties of foods that are high in both carbohydrates and fat.
Study compares food addiction to substance use disorder
Posted at 9:50 AM, Oct 19, 2023

Candy, ice cream and potato chips are delicious and consumed by people across the world, but are they as addicting as some narcotics?

Researchers from the U.S., Brazil and Spain looked at the addictive properties of ultra-processed foods and found that these foods are highly rewarding, appealing and can be consumed compulsively. The researchers found that some behaviors around ultra-processed foods would meet the criteria for substance use disorder. 

The researchers found that 14% of adults and 12% of children have an addiction to ultra-processed foods that would meet the definition of substance use disorder. 

The study noted that the problem is not just one for the U.S. These foods are quite popular in low-income countries because they are easy to access. 

“It’s essential to understand the addiction to these ultra-processed foods globally, particularly in low- and middle-income countries,” said Ashley Gearhardt, a University of Michigan professor of psychology. “It will take courageous action to change these and other economic and structural factors that drive people towards ultra-processed foods.”

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Gearhardt and others published their findings in the British Medical Journal. 

"People with a substance use disorder may have distorted thinking and behaviors," the American Psychiatric Association said. "Changes in the brain's structure and function are what cause people to have intense cravings, changes in personality, abnormal movements, and other behaviors. Brain imaging studies show changes in the areas of the brain that relate to judgment, decision making, learning, memory, and behavioral control."

Researchers noted that one problem with addiction to ultra-processed foods is that unlike smoking, drinking, or opioids, people cannot stop eating food. 

The research noted that foods that generally were high in both fat and carbohydrates tended to be more addictive than ones that just had carbs or fats. For instance, an apple is considered high in carbohydrates but has very little fat. Conversely, salmon has no carbohydrates but contains high levels of fat. Neither of these foods would be considered highly addictive based on the research. 

On the other hand, a chocolate bar has high levels of both carbohydrates and fat, making it super addictive. 

The researchers also noted that minimally processed foods generally aren't both high in carbohydrates and fat, thus making them less addictive.

"There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of ultra-processed food addiction,” Gearhardt said. "By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health."

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