What are ultra-processed foods and why are they harmful?
Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are foods that have undergone industrial processing and contain additives, such as sugar, salt, fat, preservatives, and flavor enhancers. Examples of UPFs include ice cream, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, and ready meals.
UPFs are widely consumed around the world, especially in developed countries. They account for 58% of calories consumed in the United States, according to a recent study.
However, UPFs have been linked to a number of health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. They also have a negative impact on mental health and quality of life.
How do UPFs trigger addictive responses in the brain?
A team of international researchers has published a paper on The BMJ that argues that UPFs have the properties of addictive substances and can cause food addiction in some people.
The researchers say that UPFs deliver high levels of refined carbohydrates and fats to the gut very quickly, which stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in reward and pleasure.
The researchers compare the effects of UPFs to those of nicotine and alcohol, which are known to be addictive. They say that some people may experience intense cravings, withdrawal symptoms, loss of control, and continued use despite negative consequences when they consume UPFs.
The researchers estimate that 14% of adults and 12% of children may suffer from ultra-processed food addiction, based on an analysis of 281 studies from 36 different countries.
What are the signs and symptoms of ultra-processed food addiction?
The researchers suggest that ultra-processed food addiction can be diagnosed using the criteria for substance use disorder, which is a mental disorder that involves compulsive use of drugs or alcohol.
Some of the signs and symptoms of ultra-processed food addiction include:
- Having a strong desire or urge to eat UPFs
- Eating more UPFs than intended or planned
- Having difficulty cutting down or stopping eating UPFs
- Spending a lot of time obtaining, eating, or recovering from eating UPFs
- Giving up or reducing social, work, or recreational activities because of UPF consumption
- Continuing to eat UPFs despite knowing the harm they cause
- Experiencing physical or psychological withdrawal symptoms when reducing or stopping UPF intake
- Developing tolerance to UPFs, meaning needing more to get the same effect
- Eating UPFs in situations where it is physically hazardous or socially inappropriate
How can ultra-processed food addiction be treated and prevented?
The researchers say that understanding UPFs as addictive could lead to novel approaches in the realm of social justice, clinical care, and policy approaches.
They suggest some possible ways to treat and prevent ultra-processed food addiction, such as:
- Creating ethical standards for the food industry to limit the production and marketing of UPFs
- Ensuring transparency and accountability for the ingredients and nutritional information of UPFs
- Fostering public awareness and education about the risks and consequences of UPF consumption
- Providing screening and intervention programs for people who are at risk or affected by ultra-processed food addiction
- Developing evidence-based treatments that target the biological, psychological, and social factors of ultra-processed food addiction
- Promoting healthy alternatives to UPFs that are nutritious, satisfying, and affordable
Will labelling some foods as ‘addictive’ help people change their diets?
The researchers hope that labelling some foods as ‘addictive’ will help people change their diets and reduce their consumption of UPFs.
They say that labelling could raise awareness about the addictive potential of UPFs and motivate people to seek help if they struggle with food addiction.
They also say that labelling could empower consumers to make informed choices about their food purchases and consumption.
However, labelling could also have some drawbacks, such as:
- Stigmatizing people who suffer from food addiction or obesity
- Creating confusion or misunderstanding about what constitutes an addictive food
- Encouraging restrictive or disordered eating behaviors in some people
- Ignoring the social and environmental factors that influence food choices
Therefore, the researchers say that labelling should be accompanied by other measures that address the root causes and consequences of ultra-processed food addiction.