Five years ago, a group of nutrition scientists studied what Americans eat and came to a surprising conclusion: More than a half of the calories the average American eats comes from ultra-processed foods, which they defined as “industrial formulations“which combine large amounts of sugar, salt, oils, fats and other additives.
Highly processed foods continue to dominate the American diet, despite being linked to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other health problems.
They are cheap and convenient, and they are designed to have a good taste.
The food industry markets them in a aggressive.
The vast majority of the foods that are marketed are ultra-processed. Photo by Koen van Weel / ANP / AFP).
But a growing number of scientists say that another reason these foods are consumed so much is that many people find not only tempting, but addictive, a notion that has sparked controversy among researchers.
Recently, the magazine American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the science behind food addiction and whether ultra-processed foods might be contributing to overeating and obesity.
It featured a discussion between two of the leading experts on the subject, Ashley Gearhardt, associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Johannes Hebebrand, head of the department of child psychiatry, psychosomatics and psychotherapy and adolescents from the University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany).
Gearhardt, a clinical psychologist, helped develop the Food Addiction Scale from Yale, a survey used to determine if a person shows signs of addictive behavior towards food.
In a study involving more than 500 people, she and her colleagues found that certain foods they were especially prone to inducing “addictive-type” eating behaviors, such as intense cravings, loss of control and inability to reduce them despite experiencing harmful consequences and a strong desire to stop eating.
Top of the list were pizza, chocolate, packaged french fries, cookies, ice cream, french fries, and cheeseburgers.
Gearhardt has discovered in his research that these highly processed foods have a lot in common with addictive substances.
Like the cigarettes and cocaine, Its ingredients come from plants and natural foods from which the components that slow its absorption are removed, such as fiber, water and proteins.
Its most enjoyable ingredients are then refined and processed into products that are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, enhancing their ability to ignite regions of the brain that regulate energy. reward, excitement and motivation.
Salt, thickeners, artificial flavors and other additives of highly processed foods enhance their appeal by enhancing properties such as texture and mouthfeel, similar to how cigarettes contain a series of additives designed to increase their addictive potential, Gearhardt said.
The menthol helps mask the bitter taste of nicotine, for example, while another ingredient used in some cigarettes, the cocoa, dilates the airways and increases the absorption of nicotine.
A common denominator among the most irresistible ultra-processed foods is that they contain large amounts of refined fat and carbohydrates, a potent combination rarely seen in the natural foods for which humans evolved, such as fruits, vegetables, meat, nuts, honey, peas and seeds, Gearhardt said.
Many foods found in nature are high in fat or carbohydrates, but they are not usually high in both.
“People do not experience an addictive behavioral response to natural foods that are good for our health, such as strawberries,” said Gearhardt, who is also director of the Michigan Food and Addiction Science and Treatment Laboratory.
“It is about this subset of highly processed foods that are designed in a very similar way to how we create other addictive substances.
These are the foods that can trigger a loss of control and compulsive and problem behaviors which are parallel to what we see with alcohol and cigarettes. “
In one study, Gearhardt found that when people cut back on highly processed foods, they experienced symptoms comparable to abstinence syndrome observed in drug addicts, such as irritability, fatigue, sadness, and cravings.
Other researchers have found in brain imaging studies that people who frequently eat junk food can develop a tolerance to the same over time, leading them to need increasing amounts to get the same pleasure.
In his clinical practice, Gearhardt has encountered patients – some obese and others not – who struggle in vain to control their consumption of highly processed foods.
Some try to eat them with moderation, but they find that they lose control and eat until they feel bad and distressed.
Many of her patients find that they cannot give up these foods despite battling uncontrolled diabetes, excessive weight gain, and other health problems.
“The surprising thing is that my clients are almost always very aware of the negative consequences of their consumption of highly processed foods, and they have usually tried dozens of strategies such as crash diets and cleanings to try to control his relationship with these foods, “he said.
“Although these attempts may work for a short period of time, they almost always relapse.”
But Hebebrand refutes the idea that any food is addictive.
Although potato chips and pizza may seem irresistible to some, he argues that they do not cause an altered mental state, a hallmark of addictive substances.
Smoking a cigarette, drinking a glass of wine, or taking a dose of heroin, for example, triggers an immediate sensation in the brain that food does not, he said.
“You can take any addictive drug, and it’s always the same story that almost everyone will have an altered mental state after ingesting it,” Hebebrand said.
“That indicates that the substance is having an effect on your central nervous system. But we are all eating highly processed foods, and none of us experience this altered state of mind because there is no direct impact of a substance on the brain.”
In substance use disorders, people become dependents from a specific chemical that works in the brain, such as nicotine in cigarettes or ethanol in wine and liquor.
At first they look for this chemical to get a high, and then they become dependent on it to alleviate negative and depressive emotions.
But in highly processed foods, there are no compounds that can be called addictive, Hebebrand says.
In fact, evidence suggests that obese people who overeat tend to consume a broad range of foods with different textures, flavors and compositions.
Hebebrand argued that overeating is due, in part, to the food industry trading more than 20,000 new products every year, giving people access to a seemingly variety endless of food and beverages.
“It is the diversity of foods that is so attractive and what causes the problem, not just one substance in these foods,” he said.
Those who argue against food addiction also point out that most people consume highly processed foods daily without showing any signs of addiction.
But Gearhardt points out that addictive substances they don’t hook everyone those who consume them.
According to research, around two-thirds of people who smoke cigarettes end up addicted, while the other third do not.
Only 21% of people who use cocaine throughout their lives become addicted, while only 23% of people who drink alcohol develop a dependence on it.
Studies suggest that a wide range of factors determine that people become addicted, including their genetics, your family history, your exposure to trauma, and your environmental and socioeconomic background.
“Most people try addictive substances and don’t get addicted,” Gearhardt said.
“So if these foods are addictive, you can’t expect 100% of society to be addicted to them.”
For people struggling to limit their intake of highly processed foods, Gearhardt recommends bringing a diary of what you eat to be able to identify the foods that have the most hook, those that cause intense cravings and that you cannot stop eating once you start.
Keep those foods outside your home, while stocking your fridge and pantry with healthier alternatives that appeal to you, he said.
Keep track of the triggers that cause cravings and binges.
They can be emotions such as stress, boredom, or loneliness.
Or it could be the Dunkin ‘Donuts that you go through three times a week.
Make a plan to control those triggers, for example by taking a different route to go home or doing non-food activities to relieve stress and boredom.
And avoid skipping meals, because hunger can trigger cravings that lead to unfortunate decisions, he said.
“Making sure your body is regularly fed nutritious, minimally processed foods that you enjoy can be important in helping you navigate a very challenging eating environment,” Gearhardt said.
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