Nearly 15% of adults and more than 12% of children are addicted to ultra-processed foods, new evidence shows.
In response, experts are now calling for the packaging of ultra-processed foods to display that they can be addictive.
Prior research has found that ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are associated with weight gain and an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
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International data shows an increase in the global consumption of UPFs, with these foods making up more than 50% of the traditional diet in the UK.
“The way some people consume such foods could meet the criteria for diagnosis of substance use disorder,” said academics.
People who are addicted to UPFs tend to experience intense cravings, symptoms of withdrawal and less control over intake.
According to the study, people with a UPF addiction are more likely to be obese, have poorer physical and mental health and have a lower quality of life.
In addition, they are more at risk of developing a binge eating disorder, the research findings have reported.
The authors said: “If some foods high in carbohydrates and fats were to be officially categorised as addictive, it could help improve health through changes to social, clinical and political policies.”
Corresponding author, Professor Ashley Gearhardt said: “There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of food addiction.
“By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”
Joint author Professor Alexandra DiFeliceantonio noted: “Given how prevalent these foods are – they make up 58% of calories consumed in the United States – there is so much we don’t know.”
The researchers continued: “Refined carbohydrates or fats evoke similar levels of extracellular dopamine in the brain striatum to those seen with addictive substances such as nicotine and alcohol.
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“Based on these behavioural and biological parallels, foods that deliver high levels of refined carbohydrates or added fats are a strong candidate for an addictive substance.”
They added: “Ultra-processed foods high in refined carbohydrates and added fats are highly rewarding, appealing, and consumed compulsively and may be addictive,” they continued.
“Behaviours around ultra-processed food may meet the criteria for diagnosis of substance use disorder in some people.”
They concluded: “Ultra-processed food addiction is estimated to occur in 14% of adults and 12% of children and is associated with biopsychological mechanisms of addiction and clinically significant problems.
“Understanding of these foods as addictive could lead to novel approaches in the realm of social justice, clinical care, and policy approaches.”