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Food addiction may qualify as a substance use disorder

An international team of researchers has made a bold recommendation: it’s time for a paradigm shift in how the world perceives ultra-processed food. The experts believe that recognizing certain foods as addictive might be a catalyst for better global health.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, combines expertise from scientists across the United States, Brazil, and Spain. Among them are researchers from the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

Food addiction

“There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of food addiction,” said study lead author Ashley Gearhardt, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. 

“By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”

While people can give up smoking, drinking, or gambling, they can’t stop eating, said study co-author Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. 

Addictive potential 

But not all foods pose the risk of addiction. DiFeliceantonio points out that naturally occurring or minimally processed foods mainly offer energy either as carbohydrates or fats, rarely both. 

The experts highlighted this distinction using apples, salmon, and chocolate bars as examples. While the first two offer a singular energy source (either carbohydrate or fat), the chocolate bar provides a 1-to-1 ratio of both, which can spike its addictive potential.

The concern amplifies with ultra-processed foods that combine high levels of both energy sources. 

“Many ultra-processed foods have higher levels of both. That combination has a different effect on the brain,” explained DiFeliceantonio.  

The role of additives in food addiction is another area of research that warrants deeper investigation, according to the researchers.

Key findings 

Substance use disorder

Behaviors surrounding ultra-processed foods might qualify for substance use disorder diagnosis in certain individuals. 

Indicators include uncontrollable intake, severe cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and continued consumption despite evident health issues such as obesity and mental health challenges.

Ultra-processed food addiction

A survey spanning 281 studies from 36 countries revealed that an estimated 14% of adults and 12% of children suffer from ultra-processed food addiction. 

Additionally, the availability and reliance on ultra-processed foods differ across countries, with some populations relying on them as primary calorie sources.

Broader implications 

Identifying foods as addictive has broader implications beyond health. For instance, policies in Chile and Mexico, such as taxes, labeling, and marketing controls, have corresponded with reduced caloric intake and purchases of high sugar, saturated fat, and salt foods. 

The UK has also witnessed a decline in stroke and coronary artery disease-related deaths after implementing a salt-reduction program.

Study implications 

The experts are calling for increased research on ultra-processed foods to answer many of the questions that remain, including how complex features of ultra-processed foods may combine to increase their addictive potential and how to better define which foods can be considered addictive.

“Given how prevalent these foods are – they make up 58 percent of calories consumed in the United States – there is so much we don’t know.” said DiFeliceantonio . 

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