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Highly Processed Foods Are The New Cigarettes

The modern Western diet of processed carbs and saturated fats has fundamentally transformed human health, and not in a positive way. Now, researchers are asking the question: are processed foods as addictive as other human vices, like tobacco?

Researchers from the University of Michigan and Virginia Tech recently took the criteria used in a 1988 U.S. Surgeon General’s report that established that tobacco was addictive and applied it to food. And just like tobacco wreaked havoc on the health system by driving shared costs through the roof for many seniors who died of lung and heart diseases, obesity-based illnesses have now become the primary killer of Americans.

The research, published in the current issue of Addiction, offers evidence that highly processed foods meet the same criteria once used to identify cigarettes as addictive substances. Those criteria include the following:

  • Processed food triggers compulsive use where people are unable to quit or cut down (even in the face of life-threatening diseases like diabetes and heart disease)
  • Processed foods can change the way we feel and cause changes in the brain that are of a similar magnitude as the nicotine in tobacco products
  • Processed foods are highly reinforcing, and they trigger intense urges and cravings

“Of note, there is no biomarker in the brain that tells us whether something is addictive or not,” Ashley Gearhardt, U-M associate professor of psychology, said. “Identifying that tobacco products were addictive really boiled down to these four criteria, (which) have stood up to decades of scientific evaluation. Highly processed foods meet every single one of these criteria.”

The processed food industry is the literal definition of preying on vulnerability

Highly processed foods contain unnatural and complex substances that cannot be simplified to a single chemical agent acting through a specific central mechanism. Industrial tobacco products work the same way, thanks to their thousands of chemicals, including nicotine, Gearhardt elaborated. Basically, eating a processed, carb-heavy bite of food triggers the same biological response as a cigarette, and should thus be classified similarly.

Therefore, researchers and publishers of this data want to warn the public of the health risks in a similar way the Surgeon General warned the public of tobacco risks in the 1980s.

“When we realized tobacco products were addictive, it made us realize that smoking wasn’t just an adult choice, but that people were getting hooked and couldn’t stop even when they really wanted to. This same thing appears to be happening with highly processed foods and this is particularly concerning because kids are a major target of advertising for these products,” Gearhardt added.

Here’s the bottom line: poor diets dominated by highly processed foods now contribute to preventable deaths at a similar rate as cigarettes. Like tobacco products, the food industry designs their highly processed foods to be intensely rewarding and hard to resist. It’s beyond time we acknowledge exactly what we’re dealing with when it comes to processed foods.

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