(NewsNation) — Junk food can be hard to put down, but is it addicting? New research says yes.
According to a study published in the journal Addiction, highly processed foods meet the same criteria that were used to classify tobacco as an addictive substance. Researchers found that junk food can trigger compulsive use, has psychoactive effects and is highly reinforcing, the criteria used in a 1988 Surgeon General report that determined tobacco is addictive.
Dr. Ashley Gearhardt, one of the researchers, said the study shows diets high in processed foods are killing people as much as tobacco is.
“(The food) is killing more people than alcohol and opioids,” Gearhardt said Friday on “CUOMO.” “Now diets that are really high in processed foods are the No. 1 cause of liver transplants in the United States.”
When examining highly processed foods, Gearhardt and her co-researcher Alexandra G. DiFeliceantonio found that additives in processed foods, when combined with other added fats, can contribute to amplifying the addictive nature. The study notes in the 1970s additives were more commonly placed in tobacco products, which enhanced the “somatosensory appeal, taste and smell” of cigarettes.
Additives in food act the same way, Gearhardt argues.
“We see that the amount of sugars and fats in these foods are amped up so high in processing that they far surpass anything our brain really evolved to handle,” she said. “They hit our body so rapidly that they are as effective as something like nicotine in triggering our brain and its reward system.”
While everyone knows things like pizza, milkshakes and candy aren’t health foods, Gearhardt said even people who know they need to cut down, such as those with diabetes or heart disease, can’t. It was a similar story for smokers when the addictive nature of tobacco was studied.
“We looked at those same exact benchmarks to say, ‘How did we get to a point where we knew tobacco wasn’t just a bad habit, it wasn’t just about willpower,'” Gearhardt said. “We found that these highly processed foods met every single benchmark that tobacco did to be labeled as an addictive substance.”
The U.S. obesity rate in March 2020 was 42% of all adults and 20% of children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s up from 30.5% in 2000. Fewer than 1 in 10 children and adults eat the recommended daily amount of vegetables, more than half of Americans don’t live within half-mile of a park, and 40% of all households don’t live within 1 mile of healthier food retailers.
A proliferation of highly processed foods since the turn of the century means they’re easily found on store shelves today, from cereal to soda to cookies. Most of it is cheap, too, or at least can be cheaper than healthier foods.
“It’s a really toxic environment,” Gearhardt said. “We’re designed to want these.”
She called for a “rebalancing” of the food environment that favors healthy lifestyles over corporate profits.
“Especially if you don’t have a lot of money, this might be your only source of calories to get through the day,” Gearhardt said. “We need things like protecting our children from marketing and economic incentives that make healthy foods convenient and affordable.”