University study finds similar addictive properties in junk food, drugs

By Sanjay Reddy, For the Daily
Published February 26, 2015

Despite efforts to curtail fast food consumption in the United States, junk food remains in popular demand — and new University research released last week suggests this resilience is in part due to the nature of the foods themselves.

In a recently published paper in the Public Library of Science, University researchers confirmed that highly processed foods, or foods with added fats or refined carbohydrates such as flour and sugar, have addictive effects.

Researchers found these effects work similarly to those of common addictive drugs. Unprocessed foods, without added fats or refined carbohydrates, such as salmon and brown rice, were not associated with addictive properties in the study.

This research suggests that highly processed foods may have effects in the brain that are very similar to those brought about by drugs like alcohol and nicotine, said Assistant Psychology Prof. Ashley Gearhardt, a co-author of the study.

“The reward system in the brain that is triggered by these drugs may be triggered in the same way by highly processed foods,” she said.

This study has several far-reaching implications, according to Rackham student Erica Schulte, a lead author of the study. From a public awareness standpoint, greater understanding of the addictive elements of highly processed foods could help bring about policy changes that discourage its consumption.

Furthermore, Schulte said the results could help change the nature of marketing for highly processed foods, particularly with regarding children.

“Currently we see marketing to children that is unique to these highly processed, addictive foods,” she said. “We think that this study could illustrate how harmful it is to get kids hooked on these foods at such an early age.”

Gearhardt said the study could also help change the negative stigma that often surrounds people who are struggling to eat healthy and lose weight.

“Currently the narrative is that when people struggle to lose weight, they are not trying hard enough,” she said. “What is misunderstood is that there is an actual addictive process going on.”

Business sophomore Stephanie Fotouhi, a member of PULSE, a health and wellness student organization sponsored by the University Health Service, said she thought the new findings will give both students and faculty a better sense of the challenges faced by those facing eating disorders.

“If we can spread the word about this, then our classmates who are struggling with eating addiction can feel better about themselves and receive the right attention and treatment,” she said.

Gearhardt and Schulte said future research will seek to investigate specific ingredients in highly processed foods that bring out certain genetic risk factors or vulnerabilities to trigger an addictive response.