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International team of scientists says identifying some foods as addictive could stimulate research, shift attitudes

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Researchers from the United States, Brazil, and Spain, as well as scientists from VTC’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, released an analysis in a special issue of the British Medical Journal with a current and controversial suggestion: it’s time to make an international change in how we view ultra-processed foods.

“There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of food addiction,” said Ashley Gearhardt, the article’s co-author and a psychologist at the University of Michigan. “By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”

While it is possible to stop drinking, smoking, or gambling, they are unable to quit eating, according to author Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, associate professor of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. The problem, and the currently unanswered and controversial issue, is to determine what foods have the greatest likelihood of addiction and the reasons for it.

Their research was published in October. 10, in Food For Thought, an edition that is a special issue from The British Medical Journal, an extremely popular publication and one of the oldest medical journals.

DiFeliceantonio is also the associate director for the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Center for Health Behaviors Research and an assistant professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech.

Some foods are not able to hold the potential to trigger addiction, according to the research team.

“Most foods that we think of as natural, or minimally processed, provide energy in the form of carbohydrate or fat — but not both,” DiFeliceantonio stated.

Researchers provided an example that included an apple and a salmon as well as chocolate bars. It has a carbohydrate-to-fat ratio that is roughly 1-to-0. The salmon has a balance of 1-to-1. Contrarily, the chocolate bar has a carbohydrate-fat ratio of one to one that appears to boost the likelihood of a food being addictive.

“Many processed foods contain more of both. The combination of both has a different impact on the brain,” DiFeliceantonio explained. Researchers have also urged more investigation into the impact of food additives that are used to process industrial products. Some of the key findings from this study are:

  • The behaviors associated with food that is processed, which is loaded with refined carbohydrates and fats, may meet the requirements for a diagnosis of a substance use disorder in a few individuals. These behaviors can include a lack of control over consumption as well as intense cravings. These symptoms indicate withdrawal symptoms, as well as persistent consumption despite the consequences, such as weight gain and binge eating disorders, lower mental and physical health, and lower levels of quality of life.
  • This global health problem must be considered in light of the differences between countries. In a review of 281 studies conducted in 36 different countries, scientists found that food addictions that are ultra-processed are believed to affect 14 percent of adults and 12 percent of children. In certain countries, food products that have been processed provide a need for calories. Even in countries with high incomes, food deserts and other factors can restrict access to foods that are minimally processed. Food insecure people are more dependent on processed food items and are therefore more likely to suffer from food addiction, according to research.
  • The idea of defining certain food items as addictive can be the catalyst for innovative methods in health care, social justice, and public policies. Strategies that are implemented by Chile and Mexico, such as taxes, advertising, labeling, and taxes, have been linked to reductions in calories consumed as well as purchases of foods that are high in sugar, saturated fats, and salt, for example. Additionally, in the United Kingdom, a salt-reduction program was linked with the reduction of deaths due to coronary artery diseases and stroke.

The co-authors have international experience in the field of food addiction and nutrition physiology, gut-brain reward signaling, food policy, eating disorders, and behavioral addiction disorders. They advocate for further research and research on ultra-processed food,

“Given how prevalent these foods are — they make up 58 percent of calories consumed in the United States — there is so much we don’t know.” DiFeliceantonio added.

Researchers call for further research into these areas, including the way that the complex characteristics of processed foods enhance their addictive potential and a better understanding of which food items are addictive; the differences between communities and countries, which includes those with disadvantages; the importance of health messages for the public and guidelines for clinical practice prevention, treating and addressing the dependence on ultra-processed foods.

Alongside Gearhardt and DiFeliceantonio among the authors are Nassib B. Bueno, professor at the Universidade Federal de Alagoas in Brazil; Christina A. Roberto, who is assistant professor at the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania of Medicine as well as Susana Jimenez-Murcia and Fernando Ferrandez-Aranda Professors at the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University Hospital of Bellvitge in Spain.

DiFeliceantonio isn’t the sole Virginia Tech researcher whose work is featured in this special issue. Valisa Hedrick, an associate professor at the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, is also included. The work of Hedrick highlights the uncertainty in nutrition as well as that there is a need to do further study into sweeteners made of non-sugar.

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