Ultra-processed foods may be as addictive as smoking Ultra-processed foods may be as addictive as smoking

Ultra-processed foods may be as addictive as smoking, study says

  • Scientists have found that ultra-processed foods can be just as addictive as cigarettes.

  • These foods have high levels of refined carbohydrates and fats, which can cause changes in the brain.

  • It is suggested that more stringent regulations should be put in place to limit people's access to these products due to their addictive properties and contribution to the obesity epidemic.

According to findings from a research study recently published in The BMJ, highly processed foods can be as addictive as cigarettes.

According to the study, humans tend to excessively eat foods filled with refined carbohydrates and added fats, which can provide a pleasurable reaction similar to that experienced with addictive substances such as nicotine.

The researchers noted that some individuals eat these foods in excess, and this behaviour could be classified as substance abuse in some cases.

Addiction and Ultra-Processed Foods

The study's authors examined two comprehensive reviews, which included 281 studies from 36 countries. The results of the analysis were that, according to the Yale Food Addiction Scale, an addiction to ultra-processed food is estimated to be experienced by 14% of adults and 12% of children.

The study authors compared the rate of addiction in adults to other legal substances, such as alcohol and tobacco. They found that the rate of addiction in children was significantly higher at 12 per cent. This was described as "unprecedented" by the researchers.

The Yale Food Addiction Scale evaluates the signs of addiction related to food, such as difficulty controlling the amount of food consumed, persistent cravings, physical or psychological discomfort after stopping the consumption of the food, and continuing to use the food even after it has caused adverse effects.

According to the researchers, consuming ultra-processed foods can lead to addictive behaviour, as well as significant health issues.

Research using the Yale Food Addiction Scale suggests that a significant portion of people with obesity and binge eating disorder have a food addiction. Specifically, 32% of those who have undergone bariatric surgery and more than half of those with binge eating disorder have been identified as having a food addiction.

Research from Yale has linked food addiction to reward-driven neural activity, impulsivity, and emotional instability, as well as to a decrease in physical and mental health and an overall lower quality of life.

Why some foods can be addictive

The authors of the study noted that while not all foods have addictive potential, certain types of food can be addictive, as per the Yale scale.

Sweets and salty snacks, which contain high amounts of refined carbohydrates or added fats, were identified as the foods that have the strongest behavioural indicators of addiction, including excessive intake, loss of control over consumption, intense cravings, and continued use despite negative consequences.

The research found that refined carbohydrates or fats can stimulate the production of extracellular dopamine in the brain striatum to levels similar to those seen with addictive substances like nicotine and alcohol.

Addictive qualities of ultra-processed foods

According to the study, foods that have been heavily processed and contain ingredients such as preservatives, flavourings, and artificial colours are the primary source of refined carbohydrates and added fats in the current food system.

This supra-additive effect could lead to increased cravings and consumption of unhealthy, unhealthy foods. It could also be linked to an increased risk of obesity and other metabolic diseases.


The quickness of carbohydrates and fats entering the gut due to ultra-processed foods may be linked to their potential for addiction. According to the research team, substances and methods that affect the brain rapidly are more likely to be addictive.

This is why smoking a cigarette, which quickly delivers nicotine to the brain, is more habit-forming than a nicotine patch that releases the drug at a slower rate.

The research suggests that additives may play a role in making ultra-processed foods more addictive. These additives can add sweetness and saltiness to the food and can include elements like sugar, cocoa, menthol, and alkaline salt that are also found in cigarettes.

The authors admit there are still many unanswered questions. They also state that while certain cigarette substances, such as tobacco, have not been found in food, refined carbohydrates and fats may not directly affect the reward system. Still, they appear to have a similar effect on neural reward systems as nicotine and alcohol.

The Health Impacts Of Ultra-Processed Foods

A recent study highlights the pressing need to address the escalating global obesity crisis. Ultra-processed foods, prevalent in today's food supply, significantly contribute to this issue.

These highly processed foods constitute a significant source of refined carbohydrates and fats, which can have adverse effects on brain pathways associated with addiction. This raises concerns about the potential development of food addiction, paralleling substance use disorders.

Particularly troubling is the fact that certain ethnic and disadvantaged groups, with limited access to healthier food options, tend to rely more on ultra-processed foods due to their affordability and availability.

Efforts to combat the obesity epidemic should include a comprehensive understanding of how elements within ultra-processed foods impact our neural circuitry, akin to substances or situations that lead to substance use disorders. By identifying these harmful elements, we can develop strategies to address this societal health challenge.

Combining carbohydrates and fats

It's not a coincidence that ultra-processed foods, which are linked to addiction, tend to be high in both carbohydrates and fats. This combination appeals to our bodies from an evolutionary standpoint, as it offers a way to store more fat for survival with minimal effort. After all, our body's top priority is survival.

Food companies producing these ultra-processed foods are well aware of the addictive nature of their products. They prioritize profit, and the more addictive the food, the higher their earnings. Some argue that these companies are misleading consumers by downplaying the addictive qualities of these foods.

Comparing ultra-processed foods to substances like nicotine or alcohol may not be far-fetched. The substantial refined carbohydrate and fat content in these foods can act similarly to addictive chemicals in our bodies.

Affordable, healthier alternatives require comprehensive policy reforms to address this issue. The social, economic, and structural factors that drive the widespread consumption of ultra-processed foods, along with their addictive potential, present significant challenges to public health. Recognizing ultra-processed food addiction as an official diagnosis could encourage further research into its clinical management and potentially lead to stricter regulatory measures, which might reclassify these foods as addictive substances.

Mobi Doctor can provide assistance and consultations for individuals seeking guidance on nutrition and lifestyle choices, including addressing concerns related to ultra-processed foods and potential addiction.


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