Why Processed Foods Are Addictive & How We Can Eat Less Of Them

Plenty of foods are processed before consumption—they can be frozen, roasted, spiced, and more. So, what exactly does “ultra-processed food” mean?

“Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) can be loaded with ingredients, many of which are sugar, salt, fat, and other substances derived or extracted from real food (think ‘made in the lab’) and/or additives such as artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives,” Shapiro explains. 

Vinjamoori adds that ultra-processed foods lack the essential nutrients we need to maintain optimal health (i.e., protein, fiber, etc.). This is why consuming more UPFs than whole or minimally processed foods can pose an overall health risk. 

“Ultra-processed foods are also nutrient-poor, meaning they lack essential vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds, and consistently consuming these foods can lead to nutritional deficiencies and inflammation, which can shorten one’s life span and lead to obesity and a variety of diseases,” Vinjamoori states. 

This level of processing is often used to boost sales of the product and preserve its shelf life, as well as bring down the cost of production. According to the BMJ analysis, addiction to these foods has become just as prevalent as addiction to other legal substances like alcohol and tobacco.

“A recent analysis of two systematic reviews including 281 studies from 36 different countries found the overall pooled prevalence of food addiction using [the Yale Food Addiction Scale] was 14% in adults and 12% in children,” the authors state. This prevalence is quite similar to the levels of addiction seen for other legal substances in adults (noting 14% for alcohol and 18% for tobacco), but the level of implied addiction in children is unprecedented, they say. 

In the full analysis, the authors dive deep into the health and longevity implications of this addiction, including higher rates of chronic diseases, mental health and cognition concerns, and worse treatment outcomes. 

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