Dreaming about your next encounter with that bag of salt and vinegar potato chips? If so, you’re not alone. It may be that we are more than partial to our favorite processed foods because they are actually highly addictive. That’s right, addictive. According to new research, our ultra-processed food choices (that bear little resemblance to actual foods that grow in the ground) are a major problem when it comes to our efforts to eat healthier.

Ashley Gearhardt, associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Michigan, recently wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that processed foods—including fries, frozen pizza, potato chips, and packaged cookies–have more in common with addictive substances like tobacco and cocaine than we might think.

In the same way that tobacco and cocaine are highly refined substances from plants, highly processed foods are stripped down from their natural states and reconfigured into “their most pleasurable ingredients,” The New York Times explains. This stripping process removes fiber, protein, and water, leaving "industrial formulations" of sugar, salt, artificial flavoring, and other additives. Devoid of the barriers like fiber that are found in the pre-processed state, our food becomes addictive and we are rendered helpless when it comes to moderating consumption.

Salty snacks served in bowls
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Our Bodies Are Hardwired to Store Salt, Sugar, and Fat

“The notion that some foods behave like narcotics goes back at least twenty years in scientific circles,” Michael Moss wrote in the 2013 book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. What Moss found in his research was that our predilection to fat and sugar was a survival trait developed over thousands of years that we haven’t yet outgrown.

In nature, salt, sugar, and fat are rare. When our ancestors got their hands on these, they were hardwired to store as much as possible. They did that by eating until they couldn’t eat anymore. That’s the kink in the system; we no longer need to store food like our cave-dwelling ancestors, but we eat a bag of Doritos as if our life depended on it.

Yet, despite this, the food industry does little to address the issue, Moss writes. “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing,” Moss wrote. “And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.”

Gearhardt agrees. “People don’t experience an addictive behavioral response to naturally occurring foods that are good for our health, like strawberries,” she told the Times. “It’s this subset of highly processed foods that are engineered in a way that’s so similar to how we create other addictive substances. These are the foods that can trigger a loss of control and compulsive, problematic behaviors that parallel what we see with alcohol and cigarettes.”

French fries sprinkled with salt
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We're More Likely to Binge on Salt, Sugar, and Fatty Foods

Research into binge eating disorders has also found this to be the case; foods considered “forbidden” or indulgent are more often binged on than generally healthy options like berries.

Gearhardt says our relationship with processed foods can be so extreme that some people experience withdrawal-like side effects when they reduce their intake of junk food. This can include headaches, fatigue, irritability, and depression. She helped develop the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a survey that figures out whether someone is addicted to food.

In a study of reactions by 500 subjects to different foods, certain processed foods were more likely to elicit addictive-like reactions, including intense cravings, a loss of control, and an inability to cut back, even when faced with "harmful consequences," according to the Times.

Then, there’s the risk of developing a tolerance, also similar to what happens with regular use of tobacco and narcotics. It takes more to get you high, and in the case of processed food, that means eating more to feel the same satisfaction or pleasure. (When was the last time you had the discipline to put half a pint of ice cream back in the freezer?) When someone is unable to control their addiction to food, they eat more, despite know that it can lead to higher risks of obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and even some forms of cancer.

Gearhardt says she sees patients across the spectrum—some who can better manage their intake of processed foods than others, who can’t find the balance, even when they’re already battling diseases like diabetes. (We know people who shrug off a bag of chips after eating just one, but we aren't related to them.)

“The striking thing is that my clients are almost always acutely aware of the negative consequences of their highly processed food consumption, and they have typically tried dozens of strategies like crash diets and cleanses to try and get their relationship with these foods under control,” she said. “While these attempts might work for a short time, they almost always end up relapsing.”

Is Processed Food Actually Addictive?

These new findings open the door to an ongoing debate about addiction and whether the ingredients that excite the opioid system are as addictive as drugs. Some data now suggest that addiction and self-soothing with junk food, alcohol, and narcotics is your brain's coping mechanism for unprocessed trauma and anxiety. This revises the previous narrative that addiction is a disease.

Gearhardt’s findings muddy the waters a bit. “Most people try addictive substances and they don’t become addicted,” Dr. Gearhardt said. “So if these foods are addictive, we wouldn’t expect that 100 percent of society is going to be addicted to them.”

But we do see a growing number of food-related behavioral issues, particularly in bingeing. Global eating disorders have increased from 3.4% to 7.8% between the years 2000 and 2018. While we may associate eating disorders with anorexia or bulimia, binge eating is actually the most common eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. It affects nearly 3 percent of all adults at least once in their lifetime.

“The remarkable rise of ‘convenience’ or processed foods—heralded by slogans ‘instant,’ ‘ready to cook’ and ‘heat and serve’—has set off a revolution in U.S. eating habits,” Moss wrote.

How to Combat Diet Triggers

And Gearhardt says those exact foods are the culprits to be on the lookout for. She says keeping a food journal can help you to track what triggers binge eating behaviors and cravings. Once you’ve identified the problem foods, stop buying them. She also recommends looking at triggers. Are you stressed? Depressed? Lonely? In these COVID times, boredom is not an uncommon reason for binge eating, for entertainment.

The best approach to cutting out the propensity to reach for the wrong foods may be the simplest: Filling up on healthy, plant-based, fiber-rich foods. They’ll help you to feel full so that you’re less likely to binge on the unhealthy stuff.

“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,” Gearhardt said.

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