An increasing number of people may be addicted to processed foods

Over half of Americans over 50 show signs of addiction to highly processed foods, according to a national survey.

This isn’t such shocking news, as a 2014 study published in Neuropharmacology, shared findings from a pair of psychiatric researchers who studied PET scans of the brains of both healthy subjects and heroin addicts and found that a fall-off in striatal function indeed could be detected in the subjects hooked on the drug [1]. The researchers cited additional studies showing similar brain deficits in people addicted to other substances and behaviors. Significantly, in the case of those addictions, the pleasure is processed in various brain regions, but the inability to resist temptation is consistently linked to the striatum.

Food and chemical reactions in our brain

Regarding food addictions, dopamine is not the only chemical in play. Also implicated is the hormone leptin, released by fat cells and responsible for feelings of satiety. Your leptin levels are low when you’re hungry and dive into a meal. 

When you’ve eaten your fill, leptin tells you to push away from the table. Ideally, that’s something to which you don’t give much thought and know you feel satisfied and stop eating. 

For people who eat compulsively, either leptin is not released in sufficient quantities or it is, but the brain doesn’tdoesn’t react to it adequately. “In animal models, we know that leptin modifies the rewarding effects of alcohol and possibly cocaine,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in her celebrated 2015 TedMed talk. “In obesity, there is leptin tolerance.” In this case, tolerance is not good, as it means the brain shrugs off the hormone [2].

An increasing number of people may be addicted to processed foods - Food and chemical reactions in our brain

A recent national poll affirms previous data

About 13 percent of older people in the US show signs of addiction to highly processed foods and drinks, according to a current national poll on healthy aging conducted by the University of Michigan, involving those aged 50 to 80 [3]. The poll noted that highly processed foods include sweetened beverages, potato chips and fast food.

According to the Yale Food Addiction Scale, respondents needed two or more symptoms out of 11 [4]. Those symptoms include intense cravings and an inability to cut down on consumption. Despite a desire, feelings of distress about food choices and signs of withdrawal when healthier options replaced these foods.

It was more common for women than men to meet the criteria for addiction and those with fair or poor physical health were also more likely to meet the criteria for dependence. The likelihood of meeting the requirements was three times higher for respondents reporting fair or poor mental health.

Prevention could hold a solution

A psychologist from the University of Michigan, Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, said that measures like these might help identify people who could benefit from nutrition counselling or programs that address addictive eating [5].

In the same way that our brains respond to tobacco, alcohol and other addictive substances, our brains respond strongly to highly processed foods, particularly those high in sugar, simple starches and fat. It is important to identify and support those who have adopted unhealthy patterns of food use, just as we do with smoking and drinking [6].


Photograph: joshua_resnick/Envato
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