Ultra-processed foods, one of the main addictions for children today

An article published in The British Medical Journal states that 14% of adults and 12% of children are addicted to this type of food. Its composition and presentation activate reward neural circuits similarly to alcohol or tobacco.

The authors, including Dr. Susana Jiménez-Murcia and Dr. Fernando Fernández-Aranda from IDIBELL and the Bellvitge University Hospital, call for new measures to stop its consumption, such as clearer labeling or applying extra taxes.

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A review article published in the prestigious journal The British Medical Journal states that 14% of the adult population and 12% of children admit to being addicted to ultra-processed foods, which implies an “unprecedented” level of addiction never recorded in children. The study, in which Dr. Susana Jiménez-Murcia, head of the research group at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) and head of the Clinical Psychology Service at the Bellvitge University Hospital (HUB), and Dr. Fernando Fernández-Aranda, group leader of IDIBELL and coordinator of the Eating Disorders Unit of the HUB, collects everything that is known so far about the addictive power of ultra-processed foods and their implications at a clinical and social level.

The case of addiction to ultra-processed foods is especially sensitive since there are unique social justice issues. For example, we can treat drug addiction by avoiding their consumption, since they are not necessary for survival. On the other hand, food is, and in the case of ultra-processed foods, its low price makes it the only option for many families with few resources, therefore, its addiction must be treated from a different perspective,” the researchers point out. researchers.

Ultra-processed foods are industrial foods that contain ingredients not available in the home kitchen. They used to be foods rich in refined carbohydrates and fats, two components that induce the same dopamine release in the brain as nicotine or ethanol. This means that addiction to them follows the same physiological mechanisms of addiction as alcohol or tobacco. “Consuming products such as industrial pastries or prepared foods activates reward neural circuits in a similar do it for other substances,” explains Dr. Jiménez-Murcia, “this implies the development of impulsive behaviors, the deregulation of emotions, and is associated with poor physical-mental health and a lower quality of life.

Furthermore, these types of foods are presented in a structure in which carbohydrates and fats are absorbed very easily, which allows them to act on the brain much more quickly.


What makes ultra-processed foods addictive?

To determine if a food is addictive, researchers use criteria such as lack of control over its consumption or continued use despite the negative consequences it entails for the affected person. According to researchers, the addictive power of ultra-processed foods cannot be explained by an individual component; until now, no specific component has been found that makes them addictive, such as nicotine in the case of tobacco.

We believe that it is the combination of many components that generates its uncontrolled consumption,” says Dr. Fernández-Aranda, a psychologist expert in eating disorders. “Study how the combination of different ingredients and additives, together with various formats and presentations, increase the addictive potential of ultra-processed foods is a research field with a great future.


What can we do to reduce the social and health impact of ultra-processed foods?

The authors of the article detail that there are several factors that encourage the consumption of ultra-processed foods. On the one hand, the low price boosts its consumption in the most disadvantaged regions. Its presence is also increasing in those areas where it is more difficult to obtain safe fresh food. In the study, experts propose applying measures to increase the accessibility and affordability of minimally processed foods, such as applying taxes to ultra-processed foods or limiting their marketing. At the same time, researchers suggest that new guidelines to label ultra-processed foods as addictive.

Dr. Fernández-Aranda adds that another key measure would be to develop clinical guidelines for the treatment, management, and prevention of addiction to this type of food. “An example of the need to create these guidelines is the case of people with obesity or eating disorders, who tend to present much more severe manifestations when accompanied by an addiction to ultra-processed foods. There is an urgent need to have clear guidelines on how to address these types of cases to prevent and reduce the impact.


Original paper

Social, clinical, and policy implications of ultra-processed food addiction. Gearhardt AN, Bueno NB, DiFeliceantonio AG, Roberto CA, Jiménez-Murcia S, Fernandez-Aranda F. BMJ. 2023 Oct 9;383:e075354. doi: 10.1136/bmj-2023-075354.

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