Processed Food Addiction

Nov 13, 2023, 09:12 AM by Dr. Sally Robinson

Can children become “addicted” to processed foods? This is an important question and the answers are important and scary. The World Health Organization has declared that there is a global epidemic of obesity. This is more than a cosmetic issue.  It’s an important health issue causing numerous chronic health problems, pain, and earlier than expected deaths. 

The increase in obesity is linked to the availability of varied, delicious, and fattening foods.  A comprehensive review in Nutrients in 2019 discusses the question of why some individuals are able to resist overeating while others cannot.  By understanding cravings, problems with overeating, and loss of control better treatments can be developed.

While food is not yet recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as addictive, it’s a subject of ongoing research and debate. Experts argue that certain individuals may exhibit addictive-like behaviors and neurobiological changes related to food.  Much of the research in understanding addiction is evolving.   Gearhardt et al in the British Medical Journal discusses how ultra-processed food high in carbohydrates and fats are addictive substances.

Using the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) they have found that not all foods have addictive potential.  It has also been found that intake of processed foods with high levels of refined carbohydrates or added fats, such as sweets and salty snacks, are addictive.  These types of foods are most strongly implicated in behaviors of addictions such as excessive intake, loss of control over consumption, intense cravings, and continued use despite negative consequences.  It has been found that refined carbohydrates or fats cause similar levels of dopamine in the brain as measured with additive substances such as nicotine and alcohol.

Refined carbohydrates come from the processing of the grain by removing the bran and germ of grain. What is left is less nutritious and more “addictive”.  Ultra-process foods (UPF) include packaged snacks, sugary drinks, fast food, frozen meals, breakfast cereals, and many prepackaged desserts.  UPF’s are absorbed quicker and hit the brain releasing dopamine quicker.  This is a quick “fix”.

Whether food is not defined officially as addictive certain ingredients suggest they can cause an addiction disorder.  Research has and will help develop treatments for intense cravings and overeating. 

Fazzino et al from the University of California at San Francisco found some very scary information from internal tobacco industry documents that shed light on how the companies designed their products to be addictive and the strategies to market them to children.  Did you know that Phillip Morris once owned Kraft-General Foods? That R. J. Reynolds owned Nabisco?

Ashley Gearhardt says that the findings suggest that tobacco companies engineered processed food to hit what is known as our “bliss” point and elicit craving.  There is much to be learned about how the body processes food products and why some become addicted and others do not. It is probably best to never have your child exposed to processed foods.  Good luck!


 By Sally Robinson, MD

Keeping Kids Healthy
University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB)

Published October 2023

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