Processed food addiction could be related to parent’s drinking patterns and other factors that make foods addictive

According to a new study, children with a parent who had a bout with alcohol issues are more likely to be dependent on highly processed foods.

New literature uncovers factors to processed food addiction

A new study found that children with a parent’s history of alcohol problems are at greater risk of showing signs of highly processed food addiction. According to the study published in the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, highly processed foods like chocolate, fries, ice cream and pizza have unnaturally elevated quantities of refined fats and carbohydrates that may initiate an addictive reaction in some individuals [1].

Researchers at the University of Michigan studied the association between a parent’s problematic alcohol use, obesity and their child’s eating behaviours and substance use to understand better if an “addictive-like eating phenotype exists.” The team found that parental alcohol abuse led not only to an increased chance of processed food habit among their children but also to the use of other substances like alcohol, cannabis, tobacco and vaping [2]. 

As many as 1 in 5 people display this clinically significant addiction to highly processed foods, characterised by a loss of control over intake, extreme cravings and an incapacity to cut down despite adverse consequences. People with a family history of addiction might be at more risk for developing a complicated relationship with highly processed foods. 

This can be challenging in a food environment where these foods are accessible, inexpensive, and heavily marketed, according to Lindzey Hoover, U-M psychology graduate student and the study’s lead author. Diets monopolised by highly processed food and excessive intake of addictive substances are leading reasons for preventable death in the modern world. 

This study suggests interventions are needed to reduce addictive eating and substance use simultaneously. Public health efforts that have reduced the bad effects of other addictive substances, for example restricting child-orientated marketed, may be vital to consider to reduce the negative impact of highly processed foods the study said.

Food addiction versus eating addiction

Recent revelations in popular studies have demonstrated the Western diet’s addictiveness [3], causing excessive consumption. Physiologic and neuroanatomic overlap between obesity and addiction pathways has been explained. 

Some investigators have argued that distinct elements of processed food, particularly in “fast food”, are addictive like cocaine and heroin [4]. The Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) notes specific foods as having addictive properties [5], and a children’s YFAS also discloses that food addiction is common, especially in obese youths [6].

However, not everyone subscribes to this expanded idea of different foods containing addicting properties. For example, a group of European academics called NeuroFAST does not accept the concept of food addiction but instead calls it “eating addiction” [7]. 

This group has its own “eating addiction scale”, wherein all foods are treated similarly, and it is the behaviour that characterises the phenomenon. These investigators said that even though specific foods can generate a reward cue, they cannot be addicting because they are critical to survival.

Food components that make it addictive

But what makes certain foods addictive? If a class of consumables were uniquely addictive, it would have to be “fast food” – but is it just the calories, or there might be something explicit about fast food that causes an addictive response? Fast food possesses four components whose hedonic effects have been examined: caffeine, fat, salt and sugar.

Caffeine: adolescents and children consume their caffeine from soda drinks and hot chocolate, while adults consume much of their caffeine from coffee and tea. These drinks average 239 calories and supply high amounts of sugar. 

Soft drink manufacturers identify caffeine as a flavouring agent in their beverages. Still, only 8 per cent of regular soda drinkers can detect the difference in a blind comparison of caffeine-containing and caffeine-free cola [8].

Therefore, the most likely role of caffeine in soda is to raise the prominence of an already advantageous (increased sugar) drink. These drinks may be a gateway for caffeine-dependent consumers to visit a fast food restaurant and buy fast food [9].

Fat: the high-fat content of fast food is crucial to its rewarding effects. Undoubtedly, there may be a “high-fat phenotype” among human subjects, distinguished by a priority for high-fat foods and weak satiety in reaction to them, which acts as a compromising factor for obesity [10]. 

Yet, so-called “high-fat foods” favoured by people are almost always high in carbohydrates (cookies, chips or pizza). Indeed, counting sugar enhances preference for high-fat foods among normal-weight human subjects; yet there was no limit for selection with increasing fat content. Therefore, high fat and high sugar synergy is likely more adequate at stimulating addictive overeating than fat itself. 

However, these rewarding qualities of fat appear to be precisely conditional on simultaneous ingestion of carbohydrates, as low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF) and ketogenic diets always result in decreased caloric intake, resolution of metabolic syndrome and significant weight loss. In short, fat raises the salience of fast food but does not appear to be addictive in and of itself.

Salt: in humans, salt intake has consistently been devised as a learned preference [11] instead of an addiction. The choice of salty foods is likely learned earlier in life. 

Four- to six-month-old babies establish a salt preference based on the sodium content of breast milk, water used to mix formula and diet [12]. Because energy-dense fast foods are comparatively high in salt, partly as a preservative to lessen depreciation, the desire for salty foods is associated with higher calorie intake. 

For instance, a study on Korean teens showed a relationship between frequent fast food intake and a preference for saltier versions of traditional foods [13]. An additional study looked into 27 participants undergoing opiate (mostly oxycodone) withdrawal and exhibited considerable increases in fast food consumption and weight gain over 60 days [14], implying “addiction transfer”. 

On the contrary, other studies show that people can “reset” their preference for less salty items. This is demonstrated in adolescents deprived of salty pizza on their school lunch menu and hypertensive adults who were retrained to consume a lower sodium diet over 8 to 12 weeks. Likewise, salt intake is well known to be tightly regulated at low levels. 

Sugar: aside from caffeine, the element with the highest score on the YFAS is sugar [15]. Incorporating a soft drink to a fast food meal raises the sugar content tenfold. Multivariate analysis of fast food transactions demonstrates that only soft drink intake is correlated with changes in BMI – not animal fat products.

While the intake of soda has been shown to be independently related to metabolic syndrome diseases and obesity, fast food eaters consume more soft drinks. Truly, anecdotal reports from self-identified food addicts describe sugar withdrawal as feeling “anxious”, “irritable”, “shaky” and “depressed” [16]. The same symptoms are also seen in opiate withdrawal. 

Other studies confirm using sugar to treat psychological dependence. Sugar cravings can differ widely by age, menstrual cycle and time of day.

Sugar is added to food as agave, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, maple syrup, or . In general, each are expected to consist of half fructose and half glucose. 

However, this percentage had recently disputed when an analysis of store-bought sodas in Los Angeles revealed a fructose content as high as 65 per cent [17]. This difference may be relevant, as fructose generates a more significant reward response and toxicity than glucose, but that’s a whole different story.


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