America’s Junk Food Habit Might Go Deeper Than We Think. A New Study Says Sweet And Salty Snacks Are As Addictive As Alcohol And Cigarettes

Fortune Well October 29, 2023

Lifestyle

America’s Junk Food Habit Might Go Deeper Than We Think. A New Study Says Sweet And Salty Snacks Are As Addictive As Alcohol And Cigarettes

On a given day one in three American adults will consume fast food—most likely during their lunch hour.

However, this rotation of sweet or salty snacks winding their way through the office may not merely be a force of habit. A new study has revealed that it may in fact be an addiction.

A report published in the British Medical Journal this month found that certain food types were just addictive as alcohol, and only mildly less addictive than tobacco.

The study, which analyzed data from 281 different reports across 36 countries, used the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) to establish just how addictive certain meals were in comparison with other legal substances.

Alcohol has been given an additivity level of 14%, for example, while tobacco stands at 18%. The latest findings from scientists Ashley Gearhardt, Nassib Bueno, Alexandra G. DiFeliceantonio, Christina A. Roberto, Susana Jiménez-Murcia, and Fernando Fernandez-Aranda, put food at a level of 14% in adults and 12% in children.

However, although those numbers are for food overall, the likelihood of a person getting addicted to cabbage is pretty low. The food group driving addiction is UPFs (ultra-processed foods).

The scientists found that these foods with high levels of refined carbohydrates or added fats, typically sweet and salty foods, “are most strongly implicated in the behavioral indicators of addiction, such as excessive intake, loss of control over consumption, intense cravings, and continued use despite negative consequences.”

The report goes further to uncover why junk foods in particular are addictive. It explains that like nicotine, refined carbohydrates, or fats release elevated levels of dopamine to the brain.

As a result, “foods that deliver high levels of refined carbohydrates or added fats are a strong candidate for an addictive substance.”

Some people also have no control over whether or not they get attached to UPFs, the study added, pointing out: “Addictive drugs are not necessary for survival; eating is. In some countries UPFs are an important source of calories for many people.”

As such, the scientists urged policymakers to consider accessibility, affordability, and convenience when considering the UPF addiction issue.

 
A particular problem at work

While drinking at work is a tradition which faded to cultural taboo by the turn of the 21st century, other addictive behaviors are still alive and well in the workplace.

Earlier this year a top British health official said allowing cakes into offices—for birthdays or celebrations—“undermines people’s free will,” adding, “it’s as bad as passive smoking.”

Susan Jebb, a professor at the University of Oxford who also chairs the Food Standards Agency, told the Times: “We all like to think we’re rational, intelligent, educated people who make informed choices the whole time, and we undervalue the impact of the environment.

“If nobody brought in cakes into the office, I would not eat cakes in the day, but because people do bring cakes in, I eat them. Now, okay, I have made a choice, but people were making a choice to go into a smoky pub.”

On top of sweet treats being passed around to mark big occasions among colleagues, employees are also more likely to binge when they’re stressed at work.

A study released in June from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, based in Australia, found that not only do people turn to comfort food when they’re stressed, but they unconsciously begin an action and reward cycle of junk food cravings.

Professor Herbert Herzog, senior author of the study and visiting scientist at the Garvan Institute explained: “Our findings reveal stress can override a natural brain response that diminishes the pleasure gained from eating—meaning the brain is continuously rewarded to eat.

“We showed that chronic stress, combined with a high-calorie diet, can drive more and more food intake as well as a preference for sweet, highly palatable food, thereby promoting weight gain and obesity. This research highlights how crucial a healthy diet is during times of stress.”


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