Is some food addictive?

An article published in The BMJ suggests that ultra-processed foods such as potato chips, ice cream, candy and cookies can be as addictive as smoking. The combination of refined carbohydrates and added fats in these foods can stimulate the feel-good chemicals in the brain and become habit-forming and appealing as other addictive substances such as alcohol and tobacco. “Behaviours around ultra-processed food may meet the criteria for diagnosis of substance use disorder in some people,” the study found. An analysis of 281 studies from 36 countries showed that food addiction was prevalent in 14 per cent of adults and 12 per cent of children, as defined by the Yale Food Addiction Scale. This is similar to the 14 per cent addiction to alcohol and 18 per cent to tobacco seen in adults.

Ultra-processed foods have already been linked to an increased risk of numerous health issues including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, depression, dementia and even early death. “By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health,” stated the study.

For instance, many countries have passed taxes on sugar sweetened beverages and a meta-analysis estimate that such taxes are associated with an average decline of 15 per cent to 18 per cent in the sales and intake of such beverages. These taxes have also shown a reduction in body mass index among adolescent girls in countries such as Mexico, according to the study.