Ultra-processed food is 'as addictive as smoking'

Experts warn more people are hooked on dangerous diets, with food from canned soups to bags of crisps posing a risk

Experts say canned foods are typically chock-full of additives with negligible nutritional value. Getty Images
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Junk food can be as addictive as alcohol, tobacco or gambling, according to a 36-country study published in the British Medical Journal, with researchers from the US, Brazil and Spain even suggesting some “ultra-processed” foods should be taxed and labelled to reflect this.

Ultra-processed refers to foods that replace traditional ingredients with cheap, sometimes entirely synthetic substitutes.

Their analysis of international data suggests that 14 per cent of adults and 12 per cent of children are addicted to such types of food, causing them to dangerously overeat.

‘I ate 7,000 calories a day and was never full’

Former Muay Thai fighter Jeffrey Zorn can identify. Zorn, 39, became addicted to ultra-processed foods while training in a remote Thai village and eating food bought primarily from a petrol station.

On a typical day, the Dubai resident would devour 7,000 calories in Gatorade, ice cream, sweets, canned coffee and processed carbs, due to a lack of options in the area.

Despite training for up to six hours a day, Zorn’s digestive and immune system was “crushed”, resulting in an autoimmune condition called weeping eczema, typically caused by an inadequate diet and lifestyle.

Observable signs of addiction include frequent cravings and a loss of control over consumption patterns
Dr Lina Shibib, clinical nutritionist, Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centres

“It’s a type of addiction that forms when your body is craving nutrition,” says Zorn. “This combination of processed foods does not exist in nature, which is why you can eat a bucket of popcorn and feel sick before you ever feel full.

“You never really feel satiated when you’re in this evolutionary state where your nutrition needs are not being met and you're constantly ravenous.”

The turning point came when Zorn returned to Dubai and was diagnosed with the painful skin condition. He then decided to go cold turkey to purge his system of all unnatural substances. “I used to smoke and giving up ultra-processed foods was just as difficult as giving up smoking,” says Zorn. “You must eat to survive so food addictions are probably the most difficult to overcome.

“I would walk up and down the stairs 20 times a day to get one square of dark chocolate. I definitely felt that struggle.”

Inspired by his own diet overall, Zorn founded Nourish Dubai in 2015, a meal subscription plan that uses purely natural ingredients.

“Getting through that initial blood sugar crash is difficult, but eventually that physical dependency wanes and you become much more rational,” he says. “I’d encourage everyone to educate themselves about what they’re putting in their body.”

'Food has become ... not food'

Dubai clinical nutritionist Dr Lina Shibib, says the typical UAE diet could be causing long-lasting health damage. “The prevalence of ultra-processed foods in the UAE diet exhibits variability, but a common trend involves elevated consumption levels,” says Dr Shibib, of Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centres.

“This heightened intake raises legitimate concerns about associated health risks, contributing to the growing rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases observed within the population.”

Getting through that initial blood sugar crash is difficult but eventually that physical dependency wanes
Jeffrey Zorn, founder, Nourish Dubai

Industrially processed alternatives are designed and marketed to be addictive, according to Chris van Tulleken, an infectious diseases doctor at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London.

Writing in his number one Sunday Times bestseller, Ultra-Processed People, he says: “Over the last 150 years, food has become … not food.

“We’ve started eating substances constructed from novel molecules and using processes never previously encountered in our evolutionary history.”

These include the obvious suspects such as soft drinks, chocolate, potato crisps and similar junk, but also less obvious staples such as low-fat margarines, vitamin-fortified cereals, packaged soups and other food that has long been advocated as healthy.

Not only are these substances addictive, but they also lack any nutritional sustenance, meaning we’re never going to feel full, no matter how many bags of crisps we scoff – and how many harmful additives we consume in the process.

The mental toll

As well as affecting the body, ultra-processed foods also have a marked effect on the brain, which makes addictions harder to overcome. “The impact of ultra-processed foods on the brain is notable, particularly concerning the activation of reward pathways that may lead to addictive behaviours,” says Dr Shibib.

“Their formulation, often rich in sugar, salt and fat, can activate reward centres in the brain, leading to persistent cravings and overconsumption.

“Observable signs of addiction may manifest in behaviours such as frequent cravings, a loss of control over consumption patterns and a consistent preference for these foods over more nutritious alternatives.”

Bin the biscuits, scrap the cereal

Healthcare expert and lawyer Joy Stephenson-Laws has dedicated her career to unveiling the hidden dangers in commonly consumed packaged products.

The president and founder of US-based Proactive Health Labs launched the non-profit organisation to educate people about their health and the dangers of food addiction.

“There are a variety of indications that someone may be addicted, including not being able to stop or limit the amount consumed despite a desire to do so,” she says.

Work with a competent healthcare practitioner to identify ways to eliminate these foods from the diet
Joy Stephenson-Laws, founder, Proactive Health Labs

“They may also start hoarding food or keeping a ‘secret stash’ so that it is always available. Often, they have emotional or physical withdrawal symptoms if consumption of the food is abruptly stopped or reduced.”

Despite sudden abstinence being favoured by some, both Stephenson-Laws and Dr Shibib encourage a more measured approach to cutting out ultra-processed foods.

“Someone who is addicted to these foods, or thinks they may be, should work with a competent healthcare practitioner to identify ways to eliminate these foods from their diet and develop a nutritious eating plan,” says Stephenson-Laws.

“I would also encourage making other healthier lifestyle changes such as getting enough sleep and exercise, drinking enough water, reducing stress and limiting alcohol consumption.”

For Dr Shibib, the process should be progressive, and supported by societal change. “Take gradual steps to reduce ultra-processed food intake, shift focus towards whole, nutrient-dense foods, cultivate cooking skills for preparing fresh meals, seek support from healthcare professionals or support groups and establish healthier habits like regular physical activity,” she says.

“Breaking the cycle necessitates a comprehensive approach, combining individual efforts with societal changes aimed at fostering healthier food environments.”

Updated: May 28, 2024, 11:30 AM