Recently, leading experts in nutrition debated over whether or not highly processed foods are not just bad for us, but addictive as well. Considering more than half the calories the average American eats comes from ultra-processed foods, the science of addiction and its connection to our better health can't be overlooked.

Five years ago, a study looked at what Americans ate and realized highly processed foods dominated the average American's diet. Despite being linked to several health problems including Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and obesity to name a few, they're still consumed in mass quantity. They are often super convenient and cheap, and manufactured to specifically appeal to our taste buds.

Heavily marketed by the food industry, it makes sense that they are a large part of our diet, but now scientists wonder if there's more to their heavy consumption than just being cheap and tasting good. They argue that these foods high in sugar, salt, oils, fats and other additives are quite possibly addictive as well.

And while that seems to be a most logical and sensible explanation, it's still controversial. In fact, recently two experts debated the idea. Dr. Ashley Gearhardt is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and Dr. Johannes Hebebrand is the head of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry, psychosomatics and psychotherapy at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. They discussed the science behind the desire for food and whether addiction was part of the equation.

Dr. Gearhardt helped develop the Yale Food Addiction Scale--which shows signs of addictive behavior toward food. Signs included intense cravings, loss of control, and an inability to cut back despite harmful consequences or a strong desire to stop eating them.

Topping the list of foods that brought on those behaviors were pizza, potato chips, chocolate, ice cream, French fries and cheeseburgers. Dr. Gearhardt's research has led her to conclude that there are many similarities between these highly processed foods and addictive substances. As is the case with cocaine or cigarettes, processed foods are stripped of the components that slow their absorption in your body (fiber, protein, water) and then the pleasurable ingredients are refined and processed so they are quickly absorbed. When this happens, they're able to more quickly light up regions of the brain that regulate motivation, emotion and reward--just as addictive substances often do.

Dr. Gearhardt also said that artificial flavors, additives, thickeners and salt also enhance texture in mouths, similar to the way cigarettes do to increase addictive potential. She also said that people don't experience addictive behaviors to naturally occurring foods that are good for us--like fruits or vegetables. It's the highly processed subset of foods that are engineered in ways that are quite similar to the ways addictive substances are created. They trigger similar responses in craving, loss of control and aberrant behaviors to consume. They also have shown the propensity for one to develop tolerance, much like an addictive substance, and require more and more consumption to meet that craving.

Dr. Hebebrand, on the other hand, disputes the idea that food is addictive. Saying they're certainly irresistible, they don't cause any mind-alteration, unlike cigarettes, wine or heroin might.

Those substances cause instant gratification and reaction in the brain, whereas foods do not. He counters that no one experiences altered states of mind because foods do not have direct hits of the substance in the brain. Additionally, he points out that in substance abuse disorders, it's specific chemical ingredients like nicotine or ethanol that the brain craves and seeks out, but that's not the case in processed foods and their combination of alluring ingredients.

He argues that many people consume highly processed foods regularly without any signs of addiction. Dr. Gearhardt notes that not everyone gets hooked on addictive substances anyway, and we can't expect that 100% of society would become addicted to these foods either.

Regardless--there is plenty of research on single ingredients in many of these highly processed foods that do show addictive qualities. Sugar, for example, has been shown to be highly addictive and create cravings much like those in an alcoholic or cigarette smoker.

And the same can be said for foods high in fats and salts.

Considering the world of greenwashing we live in, it's probably best to just assume those highly processed foods are working their way to our brains' and our bodies' soul-centers, and instead fuel our bodies with nourishing foods that really do help keep us strong and healthy.

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