Junk food addiction is real, experts say — here are the signs of ‘ultra-processed food use disorder’

Unhealthy products. food bad for figure, skin, heart and teeth. Assortment of fast carbohydrates food with fries and cola
Ultra-processed foods -- such as chips, many cereals and many packaged snacks -- may be linked to changes in the way we learn, remember and feel.

Help may be on the way for junk food addicts.

Recent studies suggest that these irresistible dishes are not only designed to be delicious, but also addictive — so much so that some experts are calling the insatiable craving a bona fide mental illness, per the Wall Street Journal.

Symptoms of “ultra-processed food use disorder” or “highly-processed food use disorder,” would include intense cravings and difficulty cutting down consumption, as well as withdrawal symptoms such as irritability and agitation trying to reduce intake, according to Ashley Gearhardt, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and top researcher in the field of food addiction.

Ultra-processed foods — such as chips, many cereals and many packaged snacks — may be linked to changes in the way we learn, remember and feel. beats_ – stock.adobe.com
Ultra-processed foods — such as chips, many cereals and many packaged snacks — may be linked to changes in the way we learn, remember and feel. beats_ – stock.adobe.com

Decades of research have shown that ultra-processed foods — such as potato chips, some cereals, store-bought condiments and prepackaged snacks — are bad for the body. And with additional mounting evidence that the brain and gut are intrinsically linked, experts say that food has the power to change our minds, too, contributing to mood disorders, sleep issues, learning impairments and cognitive decline.

A 2017 study published in PLoS One found that after four days of having a breakfast high in saturated fat and added sugar, individuals saw reductions in performance on some learning and memory tests, while those who ate healthier breakfasts didn’t see any performance changes.

One large review of research published last month in the journal BMJ particularly found that diets with high levels of ultra-processed foods saw an increased risk of depression, anxiety and sleep problems.

A different study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in March 2023 found that rates of depression are 80% higher in people whose diets include large amounts of ultra-processed foods.

When we eat ultra-processed foods, they hit the brain’s reward system — which involves pleasure, motivation and learning — and makes us crave them more.

Though some scientists say that not all ultra-processed foods are created equal — some could even be good for you tavrox – stock.adobe.com
Though some scientists say that not all ultra-processed foods are created equal — some could even be good for you tavrox – stock.adobe.com

Gearhardt said these effects are similar to those when people use addictive drugs including nicotine and alcohol.

“People intensely crave ultra-processed foods and consume them compulsively and find they can’t stop eating them,” she told WSJ.

She explained that it might come down to the way these foods are produced. When items such as chips, breakfast cereals and snack bars are made, the cellular structure of ingredients is often broken down and stripped of water and fiber so they are easier to chew and digest.

Since these foods are digested quickly, the components hit our brains faster, making the foods more addictive, Gearhardt said. The combination of high levels of both fat and carbs also makes it hard to stop eating.

Though some scientists say that not all ultra-processed foods are created equal — some could even be good for you — and since there’s no consistent and universally set definition, some companies and producers defend their products as not ultra-processed.

According to Gearhardt’s studies, chocolate, ice cream, french fries, pizza and chips are the top foods that people reported eating in an addictive manner — all foods that are high in both fat and carbs.

“The makers of America’s trusted household brands are committed to protecting access to nutritious, affordable, convenient and safe food,” a spokesperson for the Consumer Brands Association, an industry trade group, told WSJ.

However, researchers say that there’s still a lot of unknown and research is in the early stages.

Diets that are high in ultra-processed foods have previously been linked with obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, though beyond calorie composition and nutrient composition, it’s not clear why.