Ultra processed foods are likely as addictive as alcohol and cigarettes

Last month, we talked about California banning red dye No. 3 and the adverse effects it can have on people. Now, we have more confirmation about the dangers of ultra processed foods. I think most of us know that ultra processed foods like chips, deli meat, sodas, candy, and sugary breakfast cereals, are unhealthy. A new study shows that they can also be addictive, making it difficult for even those “who know better” to easily give them up. The study, conducted by researchers in the United States, Spain and Brazil, found that signs of ultra-processed food addiction were found in 14% of adults and 12% of children. When analyzing their data, researchers found that those percentages are similar to other addictions in adults, including alcohol (14%, which seems low to me) and tobacco (18%). The scary, eye-opening conclusion, however, is that if those numbers are correct, then it is an “unprecedented” level of implied addiction for children.

How they can affect the brain: Ultra-processed foods, which include staple junk food items like chips, candy and sugary breakfast cereals, are high in ingredients like fats and carbohydrates. Researchers stated that the speed at which ultra-processed foods deliver ingredients to the gut may be crucial to their “addictive potential,” as they work faster than minimally-processed foods, and can also affect the brain quicker. Additives like flavor and texture may also be contributing factors.

On possibly meeting the criteria for substance use disorder: According to Heathline, food addiction symptoms can include craving food when full and eating more than intended, among other signs. Food addiction is not currently classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), which is used by health care professionals to diagnose mental disorders.

It may not be so simple, though: Other experts say that declaring certain foods as addictive is not a simple process. Erin Palinski-Wade, a registered dietitian nutritionist, told Fox Digital News that “food cravings are complex and tied into not just the nutrition profile of a food, but also the emotions and learned behaviors around eating.” Palinski-Wade also noted that foods with high amounts of added sugars and fats are typically associated with high levels of cravings, which can lead to “addictive-like eating behaviors.”

There are socio-economic factors that make healthier food options unavailable: Other factors may lead to choosing ultra-processed foods over minimally-processed foods. Speaking with Medical News Today, registered dietitian nutritionist Kelsey Costa suggested that making healthier food options more affordable through policy reforms may help with the issue. “The social, economic, and structural factors contributing to the pervasive consumption of [ultra-processed foods] and their addictive potential remain significant challenges to public health,” she said. The BMJ study also noted that ultra-processed foods are a vital source of calories for people in various countries and that the food environments are not always equal within the same country.

Acknowledging this issue could have worldwide effects: Though addiction to ultra-processed foods is not “an official diagnosis,” as the study reiterates, researchers write that classifying it as such could ultimately benefit and “lead to novel approaches” across realms like social justice and clinical care. “There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of ultra-processed food addiction,” Ashley Gearhardt, a University of Michigan professor who led the study’s research, said in a news release. “By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”

[From People]

None of this surprises me at all. I think that especially as you get older, you notice that eating certain foods can cause you to bloat, make your joints ache, effect how you do #2, and just generally make you say things like, “That just didn’t agree with me.” I was diagnosed with a hiatal hernia when I was 22. Over the next decade, I had to learn the hard way what foods I could and could not eat because when a hiatal hernia flares up, it is not fun. In early 2022, I joined the E2M program and started following their weekly food suggestions of eating one protein, one vegetable, and one healthy fat per meal. While I am not always perfect with it, I have found that cutting out the extra processed crap helps me a lot with inflammation, bloat, hernia flare ups, and energy in general.

I also find it interesting when the study talks about how ultra-processed foods are broken down quicker, which leads to them affecting the brain quicker. I have people very close to me who struggle with snacking and not being able to stop because they do it without even thinking. Both have explained it as dopamine mining or “dopamining.” The human brain may be complex, but ultimately, we are hardwired to seek out things that give us pleasure. I know that at the end of the day, it always comes down to cost and profit. It is more expensive to eat healthier foods, but I do hope that one day, healthy, minimally-processed foods become more affordable and accessible.

photos credit: Esma Atak, Kaushal Moradiya, Kamaji Ogino and Lucas Souza on Pexels

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22 Responses to “Ultra processed foods are likely as addictive as alcohol and cigarettes”

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  1. Lays potato chips told the truth when their slogan said you can’t just eat one.

    • B says:

      Marion Nestle has been writing for years about how processed food is explicitly engineered to make us eat more.

  2. Flowerlake says:

    Thanks for paying attention to this.

    I only have a balcony but grow some of my food on and outside. Try to avoid ultra processed food as much as possible.

  3. Libra says:

    I have lived with IBS since forever. Inherited slow moving gut is less a role than diet. It is a constant struggle to eat what my body needs to ease pain and bloating . Sugars and salty, fatty carbs are the worst. Food dyes and all the additives in processed foods have me doubled over in pain. At work there were days when I would not eat at all to avoid end of day bloat.

    • taris says:

      yeah, me too, living with some somewhat debilitating health conditions since childhood really takes the option to over-indulge in junk off the table. i’m forced to look after myself (eat greens, workout) every day, otherwise i have to deal with days of illness if i go in too hard on processed foods.

      i will say, though, that i think this problem is a much bigger one in the western world. i’ve seen the stuff americans eat and, boy, some of that should be outright made illegal.

  4. Kate says:

    I don’t know how helpful it is to demonize types of food just bc they give a bigger, faster reward to your brain. I think addiction starts inside a person and doesn’t really have much to do with the substance itself, apart from legitimately addictive and harmful drugs. Unlike drugs, alcohol or gambling, we need food to survive and we need to learn how to have a healthy relationship with it. Categorizing types of food as “bad” is in my opinion part of the problem of why people have such messed up relationships with food.

    Kind of like if you are taught sex is “bad” or “sinful” outside of marriage but being a human animal you want it anyway, so when you have or desire sex you just feel guilty and powerless over your craving of it. Which feeds into the shame cycle of addiction.

    My point is calling everything that is rewarding to your brain “bad” or “addictive” rather than taking the approach that of course you want it and it’s ok to have it sometimes AND teaching people how to feed and take care of themselves to reduce sugar/dopamine cravings in the first place is not going to do what these researchers are hoping to do.

    • Wannabefarmer says:

      But the reality is some foods are bad, should not be consumed by human, IMHO. And there are foods that are good for you, can in fact be healing. We have been sold a bill of good by corporations looking for a quick buck and could care less about population health. The obesity rates in the U.S. population is not an accident. Why in heavens name do we put sugar in bread, then pay extra for bread made without sugar? Why is junk food cheaper than real food? We’ve been socialized into this mess. People need to shop the outside aisle of the grocery store more, read labels more, and learn to cook and eat real food. Just as an aside, I was reading something the other day about a kid who didnt recognize an egg, never had one, or kids who’ve never seen a real carrot. I mean, seriously. There is nothing wrong with an occasional binge of junk food but it should not be a way of life.

    • Kali says:

      You’re confusing the moral implication of “bad” with the scientifically proven harms on one’s body brought about those foods. Yes, Cheetos are bad. Be rational and don’t eat them. It won’t make you a more moral person, but your health will be better.

    • Kate says:

      I’m trying to have a more nuanced discussion about the psychology of denouncing entire categories of readily available foods. I’m not saying ultra processed foods = health food or that we should be eating them all day every day. But since they are readily available and usually cheaper than whole foods, the fact is people need to learn how to coexist with them. I think by now everyone knows the term “junk food” and knows that it’s bad for your health and yet…we still have an obesity epidemic and eating disorders galore.

      I grew up with zero junk food/UPF in the house, eating nutritious dinners each night, and I still ended up abusing food as a young adult. I knew that UPF’s were bad for my health yet I craved them after starving myself all day. I think many people suffering from binge eating or having similar food issues would find this relatable. They know it’s bad for your health, but they don’t know how to stop. Because they can’t stop, they feel bad (morally) about themselves. Enter shame cycle.

      I think many of us here agree that eating lots of UPF is not good for your health, much like drinking lots of alcohol, smoking cigarettes, abusing drugs, etc. As someone who recovered from abusing it I’m offering the perspective that doubling down and adding DANGEROUS labels to every bag of chips or funding a hundred more studies to prove that sugar is worse than cocaine is not really getting at the root of the problem.

      • Kali says:

        The root of the problem is the pervasiveness of such fake bad foods, along with the long working schedules of most Americans (I’m going to limit my claims to only Americans). Such foods were not around 50 years, ago, and Americans were not overwhelmingly overweight then. As you said, education and awareness are not sufficient. If there’s crap food around we all will gobble it up at at least one point in our lives.
        I’m not prepared to sacrifice future generations and surround them with poison just to alleviate the undeniable psychological burden of people who binge eat now. It’s a trade I’m willing to make.We don’t have much time to try to coexist.

  5. RMS says:

    Would this be the place to pipe up about how everyone notices something different about their diet/weight/health when they travel to Europe for a week or more? There are all kinds of foods: Skittles, fruit loops, pop tarts… that are ILLEGAL there! Yes one walks more, but I swear I was eating enormous portions of beef and drinking liters of beer in Germany (BTW, I can NOT tolerate any beer in the US) and I STILL lost 10 pounds over 10 days?!? I don’t want to go down the black hole of conjecture about what’s afoot, but WHY would something be deemed too poisonous for Germans to eat, but can be widely distributed and consumed here?!?

    • Kat says:

      Not sure where you got this from, but those foods aren’t illegal in Europe. I’d say they aren’t super popular, but you can buy them if you want to.

      • ML says:

        I currently live in Holland, but due to the US military connection spent a year in Germany about 2 decades ago and sometimes go visit/ for work. What RMS is saying about Skittles, PopTarts, etc, isn’t true for either Germany or the Netherlands. Some of this stuff is in [English] stores, the foreign section at large supermarkets, Amazon dot [country]… and Western countries also make their own versions of ultra processed foods and snacks. Kat is correct.

    • Twin Falls says:

      Unfortunately, I can’t afford to take my family to a European country and test that theory. I could I guess eliminate eating foods that have been banned by the EU and Canada and see if that makes a difference. Of course we’d probably have to give up eating meat, dairy and most bread products plus snack foods and candy.

    • Wannabefarmer says:

      Corporate lobbyists rule NA and they have managed to train our taste buds for the cheap junk they produce, while the other half gets us to spend enormous amounts of time sitting on our expanding behinds.

    • Wednesday Addams says:

      True! I went to Italy and lost 10 lbs while I was there, while drinking wine every night and eating pasta and gelato every day,

    • Betsy says:


      Purely for the sake of scientific research, I ate gelato 2x a day (plus some of my husband’s coffee granita with whipped cream), plus whatever the heck I wanted.

      First of all, “whatever the heck I wanted” was far less than it is in America. Walking for sure can put a damper on an appetite, but I never notice it here in the States. And I really actually was curious what would happen if I ate ice cream 2x a day, but I was finding it a struggle to eat it, too, and not because I picked bad flavors at tourist grade gelaterias.

      I came home pounds down. I couldn’t say which additives or processes it is, which chemicals in the growing process, storage/treatment processes are used after harvest, etc., but it’s probably a number of things that are different. It’s noticeable.

    • Andrea says:

      I went to Ireland for 12 days to visit a friend and had to buy a belt I lost so much weight. I have PCOS and a very difficult time losing weight, so it was quite shocking to me. I found the carrots and yogurt tasted so much better over there. I think about both many times. There are definitely less additives and sugars in things over there. My friend lived in Canada for two years and had traveled to the US too and said the vegetables tasted different to her, like less earthier. Her comments I didn’t get until I ate the carrots over there and was blown away by the sheer flavor of them. I feel like we get them subpar here.

    • RMS says:

      I mis-spoke with ‘illegal’ and confused Fruit Loops with other sugary cereals. Go ahead and google US foods banned in the EU, and there are plenty of articles from reputable news sources. Doesn’t mean those foods can’t be found in special sections of certain grocery stores, just means they aren’t easily and widely available. Apologies for not being more precise in my wording.

  6. Barrett says:

    This topic is near to my heart bc I want people to learn from my mistakes and be healthy. I was born to a type 1 mother who was poor and had poor health and poor cblood sugar control. Her diet when pregnant and throughout my childhood was high GI and lots of soda/chips. She ended up getting severe diabetic complications at a young age. She and my father raised me on an ultraprocessed diet with lots of soda. My dad was big on hostess cakes and cupcakes, ice cream. I had a craving for sweets very strongly at a young age. I figure I was drinking soda even in the womb. High fructose is highly addictive. My mother became very mentally unstable in my teen years due to diet and its lack of blood sugar stability. She was moody, physically violent and critical of my appearance. I was her emotional therapist at a young age. I went to college gave up soda, became a distance runner, had an ok diet, still had a bit of a sweet tooth but was somewhat balanced. In my late 20’s I met a guy who was into lifting weights, and was very focused on appearance. He was on and off Atkins. Either binging on food for months or eating overly restrictive. He quickly turned his criticism to my body. He began creating work outs for me and telling me every girl has an eating disorder and saying what’s yours. I though he was overboard but then I’d spend weekends w him were he was so restrictive ab what we could and could not eat that eventually his brother brought back a bag of chocolate mini’s from a european holiday. I began eating them secretly and then feeling guilty spitting them out in trash and/or over exercising to burn off and look the way this guy expected me to. We eventually broke up but my addiction to sugar stayed w me and it makes sense b/c I had it in the womb, in my home, and now reignited in my 20’s. Long story short I was told by my parents who were very ignorant my whole life that I had no chance of getting type 1 BUT I end up getting Type 1 Diabetes 3 -4 years later at 31. I the time Ibecame so addictive to sugar that I turned to it when I took on a stressful job, work late grab a candy miniature bar from the office candy bowl, then feel guilty – eat lots of veggies, restrict until doing it again. I now don’t eat processed food and I have complications from diabetes. I am convinced that our gut microbiome turns on diseases within our genes. Colon cancer, diabetes, thyroid, are on rise so on and so forth. Please treat your body well, only eat sweets/processed as an occasional treat, eat real food, exercise, move your body. This stuff is highly addidictive. If you have trauma or stress there are healthy coping mechnisms. You can quit it and stop the dopamine addiction. And yes that guy I dated was such a jerk. I wish I could tell my younger self to run away as fast as I could. My step daughter now is always pounding sugar as a teen, it pains me and all I can do is keep the food and example healthly. But I see how crazed she gets if she has eaten lots of sugar and then there is none in our house or say there is a homemade pumpkin pie. She will binge like crazy or get very antsy b/c nothing is there to keep up her dopamine loop.

  7. Nerdista says:

    Um. No. Nice try.

  8. Flamingo says:

    I grew up food ignorant with a Father who refused to eat any vegetable except starches like corn or potatoes. My Mother wanted variety but she buckled to his demands. I didn’t even know what asparagus was when I went to a friend’s house for dinner at 14 and had it for the first time.

    I was in my late 40’s by the time things were really spiraling with my weight and blood pressure. I lucked out and got a great nutritionist. Who had to teach me the basics and go deep into the science and what it does to our bodies. I honestly had no idea how poisonous sugary cereal was. I was basically raised on it since a baby. That was one hard habit to break.

    For my body type, it responds well to a more Mediterranean diet. My blood pressure is normal and I have maintained a 60lb weight loss since 2019. Now with menopause creeping in I have to be more diligent. It’s a shame food companies are more than happy to end lives early in the name of profits.