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Ultra-processed Foods No Less Addictive Than Cigarettes

Ultra-Processed Foods No Less Addictive Than Cigarettes

foods ultra-processed foods Jun 08, 2024

Summary: A new study using one of the validated tools, the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), found that certain ultra-processed foods can be as addictive as cigarettes and alcohol, raising further concerns regarding the widespread consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Science has long known that ultra-processed foods are harmful to health. Moreover, in most Western societies, people get most of their calories from ultra-processed foods.

However, the recommendation to reduce the intake of ultra-processed foods despite the known health risks is not working. It appears that people are just addicted to these foods. Moreover now, a new study published in the BMJ indicates that addiction to such foods is as common as an addiction to cigarettes or even alcohol.

Such foods are generally produced industrially and are high in processed carbs, saturated fats, food additives, and more. These foods are comfortable to consume as they need little to no preparation. However, it appears that there is more to the story. It is not just about the comfort, as these foods are also highly addictive.

Ultra-processed Foods Are Addictive

Most studies measure food addiction using the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS). This study published in the BMJ analyzed data from two systemic reviews of 281 studies from 36 different nations. So, this was quite an extensive study. The study found food addiction rates of about 14%, which are quite comparable to alcohol (14%) and tobacco (18%).

Of course, those are averages. However, the study had many other alarming findings, like the prevalence of food addiction among children or much higher food addiction among obese people at about 32%.

The study also explored the possible causes of such an addiction. It is natural to ask why ultra-processed foods are so addictive.

Ultra-processed foods differ from naturally occurring foods in many ways. Most ultra-processed foods are high in carbs and fats. In nature, foods are either high in carbs or fats, but not in both. For example, a chocolate bar contains both carbs and fats in almost equal amounts. In contrast, apples would mainly contain carbs.

Another significant difference is the rate at which these nutrients are absorbed. Generally, carbs and fats are absorbed slowly from natural foods. However, they absorb pretty fast from ultra-processed foods, causing an increase in dopamine levels in the brain and, thus, food addiction.

Additionally, most ultra-processed foods contain additives to enhance their flavor, texture, and other qualities, making them more addictive. Some food additives may directly affect the brain, causing changes and thus the addiction.

Of course, these are still early days in understanding food addiction, and lots must be learned. There is still a need to create better tools for identifying food addiction. Moreover, the kind of ultra-processed foods differ from country to country.

Nevertheless, as science continues to understand ultra-processed food addiction, it may have multiple implications. Some worry that classifying certain foods as addictive may negatively affect the food supply chain in some nations and may increase social injustice.

There are clinical implications of this finding, too. At present, food addiction is not recognized as a diagnosis. But, if it happens in the near future, there would be a need to find its treatment. This will also change the way metabolic disorders are treated. Nevertheless, even without this, doctors need to take the findings of this study into consideration when managing metabolic disorders like hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic ailments.

Finally, understanding food addiction may also have policy implications. For example, in most nations, taxes on addictive substances like tobacco or alcohol are higher than on foods. Classifying certain foods as addictive would mean changes in taxes.

Surely, there is still much to be understood. Nevertheless, this is definitely a groundbreaking study. It is not time to look at ultra-processed foods not merely as unhealthy foods but also addictive – a kind of foods that may cause brain changes, making getting rid of them challenging despite the known harm.


Gearhardt, A. N., Bueno, N. B., DiFeliceantonio, A. G., Roberto, C. A., Jiménez-Murcia, S., & Fernandez-Aranda, F. (2023). Social, clinical, and policy implications of ultra-processed food addiction. BMJ, 383, e075354. 

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