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Are Ultra Processed Foods Addictive?

Over half the calories that the average American eats now come from ultra-processed foods. In other words, over half the amount of food that most people eat is derived from an industrial formula that combines large amounts of sugar, salt, oils, fats and other additives. These highly processed foods are linked to obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and other health problems. So why do so many Americans continue to eat so much ultra-processed foods? There are likely a number of reasons, including that they are engineered to taste good, they are cheap and convenient and they are aggressively marketed to us by the food industry. However, another reason may be that not only do they taste good, but newer research suggests they may be addictive.


One study in particular concluded that certain foods were very likely to elicit “addictive-like” eating behaviors. At the top of the list were pizza, chocolate, potato chips, cookies, ice cream, French fries and cheeseburgers. These foods were likely to cause participants to experience intense cravings, a loss of portion-control and an inability to cut back despite experiencing harmful consequences and a strong desire to stop eating them. In fact, these foods share much in common with other addictive substances like alcohol, cigarettes and even cocaine. In the case of cocaine and cigarettes, naturally occurring ingredients are stripped of components that would otherwise slow their absorption. Processed foods do the same thing and additionally, the most pleasurable ingredients are further refined and processed into products that are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and causes the area of our brain that regulates reward, emotion and motivation to light up.


The naturally occurring foods that we were evolved to eat do not have the combination of large amounts of fat and refined carbohydrates that ultra-processed foods contain. In further evidence of the addictive nature of highly processed foods, some researchers have found that when people try to reduce their intake of these foods, they experience symptoms that were comparable to the withdrawal seen in drug use, such as irritability, fatigue, feelings of sadness and cravings. Many patients find that they cannot quit these foods despite struggling with uncontrolled diabetes, excessive weight gain and other health problems. According to Dr. Gearhardt, director of the Food and Addiction Science and Treatment lab at the University of Michigan patients “are almost always acutely aware of the negative consequences of their highly processed food consumption, and they have typically tried dozens of strategies like crash diets and cleanses to try and get their relationship with these foods under control.”


At Oregon Medical Weight Loss, we believe that weight issues are complex, driven by internal factors - such as underlying genetic predisposition, neurotransmitters and insulin levels - as well as external factors such as intensive marketing and manipulation of our food and environment. If foods are DESIGNED to be addictive that certainly compounds the challenges. If you are struggling to lose weight, make an appointment to come see us and we will develop an individualized medical plan to help you.

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