Highly processed foods ‘as addictive’ as tobacco


Highly processed foods meet the same criteria as tobacco for addiction, and labeling them as such might benefit public health, according to a new U.S. study that proposes a set of criteria to assess the addictive potential of some foods.

The research suggests that health care professionals are taking steps toward framing food addiction as a clinical entity in its own right; it currently lacks validated treatment protocols and recognition as a clinical diagnosis.

Meanwhile, other data, reported by researchers at the 2022 Diabetes Professional Care conference in London also add support to the clinical recognition of food addiction.

Clinical psychologist Jen Unwin, PhD, from Southport, England, showed that a 3-month online program of low-carbohydrate diet together with psychoeducational support significantly reduced food addiction symptoms among a varied group of individuals, not all of whom were overweight or had obesity.

Dr. Unwin said her new data represent the first wide-scale clinical audit of its kind, other than a prior report of three patients with food addiction who were successfully treated with a ketogenic diet.

“Food addiction explains so much of what we see in clinical practice, where intelligent people understand what we tell them about the physiology associated with a low-carb diet, and they follow it for a while, but then they relapse,” said Dr. Unwin, explaining the difficulties faced by around 20% of her patients who are considered to have food addiction.

Meanwhile, the authors of the U.S. study, led by Ashley N. Gearhardt, PhD, a psychologist from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, wrote that the ability of highly processed foods (HPFs) “to rapidly deliver high doses of refined carbohydrates and/or fat appear key to their addictive potential. Thus, we conclude that HPFs can be considered addictive substances based on scientifically established criteria.”

They asserted that the contribution to preventable deaths by a diet dominated by highly processed foods is comparable with that of tobacco products, and as such, like Dr. Unwin, the authors sought clinical recognition and a more formalized protocol to manage food addiction.

“Understanding whether addiction contributes to HPF intake may lead to new treatments, as preliminary research finds that behavioral and pharmacological interventions that target addictive mechanisms may reduce compulsive HPF intake,” they stated.

The study led by Dr. Gearhardt was published in the journal Addiction, and the study led by Unwin was also recently published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.

Addiction criteria similar to tobacco

HPFs can be associated with an eating phenotype “that reflects the hallmarks of addiction,” said Dr. Gearhardt and coauthors; typically, loss of control over intake, intense cravings, inability to cut down, and continued use despite negative consequences.

Acknowledging the lack of a single addictive agent, they explain that food addiction reflects mechanisms implicated in other addictive disorders such as smoking.

As such, in their study, Dr. Gearhardt and colleagues proposed a set of scientifically based criteria for the evaluation of whether certain foods are addictive. “Specifically, we propose the primary criteria used to resolve one of the last major controversies over whether a substance, tobacco products, was addictive.”

They consider certain foods according to the primary criteria that have stood the test of time after being proposed in 1988 by the U.S. Surgeon General to establish the addictive potential of tobacco: they trigger compulsive use, they have psychoactive effects, and they are reinforcing.

They have updated these criteria to include the ability to trigger urges and cravings, and added that “both these products [tobacco and HPFs] are legal, easily accessible, inexpensive, lack an intoxication syndrome, and are major causes of preventable death.”

For example, with compulsive use, tobacco meets this criterion because evidence suggests that most smokers would like to quit but are unable to do so.

Likewise, wrote Dr. Gearhardt and colleagues, even “in the face of significant diet-related health consequences (e.g., diabetes and cardiovascular disease), the majority of patients are unable to adhere to medically recommended dietary plans that require a reduction in HPF intake.”

Reinforcement, through tobacco use, is demonstrated by its ‘being sufficiently rewarding to maintain self-administration” because of its ability to deliver nicotine, they said, quoting the Surgeon General’s report, and likewise, with food addiction, “both adults and children will self-administer HPFs (e.g., potato chips, candy, and cookies) even when satiated.”


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