We talk about inhaling it, not being able to go without it and even pressuring others to try it. Perhaps it's time to face it: We talk about junk food like it was an addictive drug.
But as far-fetched as that might seem, new research published in PlosOne suggests that highly processed foods like pizza, chocolate and ice cream (all the good stuff) might truly have some of us hooked.
The study: A team of researchers at the University of Michigan recruited 120 undergraduates (connoisseurs of junk-food) and had them complete a version of the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which measures "addictive-like eating behaviors." The team presented the participants with two pictures of foods (selected from a list of 35 foods with varying "nutritional composition") and asked them to point out the "problem food." The researchers ranked the food items based on perceived psychological associations, rather than a physiological assessment.
In total, 18 of the foods were highly processed products like cake, chocolate and chips. The other 17 were items like bananas, carrots or nuts, which were considered unprocessed. Though only about 7% of the undergrads met the full criteria for having a food addiction, an astonishing 92% of them reported having a desire to quit but being unable to do so. Unsurprisingly, the Top 10 foods that they indicated having "problems" with were all highly processed products.
To confirm their results, the research team posed a similar question to 398 more participants using Amazon Mechanical Turk (a tool that pays people to complete surveys) and asked them to rate how likely they might be to experience problems with the original list of 35 foods.
Highly processed foods won out again. Nine out of the 10 foods that the undergraduates ranked as problematic were processed. In this portion of the study, 10% of participants met the criteria for a food addiction, but about 92% once again indicated that they had issues with quitting certain foods.
The science: According to the study, highly processed foods share certain characteristics with addictive drugs. For instance, both tend to be consumed in concentrated doses and both are absorbed quickly by the body.
It comes down to basic biology: You're more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol because it contains the concentrated addictive substance ethanol. When you throw hard liquor into the equation, an addiction is even more likely to develop because the concentration of ethanol is even higher. In the same way, the concentration of sugar tends to be much higher in processed foods than in fruits.
Why this matters? According to a 2011 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10% of "underweight" people, 6.3% of "normal weight" people, 14% of "overweight" people and 37.5% of "obese" people can be diagnosed with food addiction, meaning this actually could be a real issue for many.
And, if that's the case, then the same way cigarette companies are fueled by addiction nicotine, the companies that produce your favorite guilty pleasures might be taking advantage of your dependence.
"An unprocessed food, such as an apple, is less likely to trigger an addictive-like response than a highly processed food, such as a cookie," the team wrote. Processing, they explain, appears to be an essential distinguishing factor for whether a food is associated with behavioral indicators of addictive-like eating. They also pointed out that cooking or even just stirring food is certainly a form of processing it often doesn't come with all the added fats or refined carbs. The next step is for researchers to investigate the exact biological mechanisms that might play a role in a possible food addiction.
But there's no need to cut off your chocolate supplier just yet. It's more important to examine your relationship to food and make sure the highly processed meals are taking a backseat to the nutritious ones.
h/t Huffington Post