More than half of all the calories that the average American consumes comes from ultraprocessed foods
The New York Times writes that five years ago, a group of nutrition scientists studied what Americans eat and reached a striking conclusion: More than half of all the calories that the average American consumes comes from ultraprocessed foods, which they defined as “industrial formulations” that combine large amounts of sugar, salt, oils, fats and other additives. Since then, a growing number of scientists say another reason these foods are so heavily consumed is that for many people they are not just tempting but addictive. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition explored the science behind food addiction and whether ultraprocessed foods might be contributing to overeating and obesity. It featured a debate between two of the leading experts on the subject, Ashley Gearhardt, associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Johannes Hebebrand, head of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry, psychosomatics and psychotherapy at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. Gearhardt, helped develop the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a survey used to determine whether a person shows signs of addictive behavior toward food. In one study involving more than 500 people, she and her colleagues found that certain foods were especially likely to elicit “addictive-like” eating behaviors, such as intense cravings, a loss of control and an inability to cut back despite experiencing harmful consequences and a strong desire to stop eating them.
At the top of the list were pizza, chocolate, potato chips, cookies, ice cream, french fries and cheeseburgers. Gearhardt has found in her research that these highly processed foods share much in common with addictive substances. Like cigarettes and cocaine, their ingredients are derived from naturally occurring plants and foods that are stripped of components that slow their absorption, such as fiber, water and protein. Then their most pleasurable ingredients are refined and processed into products that are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, enhancing their ability to light up regions of the brain that regulate reward, emotion and motivation. Hebebrand disagrees and argued that overeating is driven in part by the food industry marketing more than 20,000 new products every year, giving people access to a seemingly endless variety of foods and beverages. “Making sure you are regularly fueling your body with nutritious, minimally processed foods that you enjoy can be important for helping you navigate a very challenging food environment,” said Gearhardt.