A narrative review of highly processed food addiction across the lifespan

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2021 Mar 2;106:110152. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2020.110152. Epub 2020 Oct 28.


Evidence is growing that highly processed (HP) foods (i.e., foods high in refined carbohydrates and fat) are highly effective in activating reward systems and may even be capable of triggering addictive processes. Unlike traditional drugs of abuse, exposure to HP foods is common very early in development. HP food addiction has been associated with negative outcomes, including higher body mass index (BMI), more frequent binge eating, greater failure in weight loss treatment trials, and poorer mental and physical health. Although most research on HP food addiction has been conducted using adult samples, research on this topic now spans across the life span beginning in utero and extending through older adulthood. HP food addiction and related reward-based changes are associated with negative outcomes at every life stage, which has important implications for developmentally tailored prevention and treatment efforts. Using a developmentally informed approach, the current study comprehensively reviews the existing research on HP food addiction across the lifespan and highlights important areas of future research.

Keywords: Adolescence; Adulthood; Childhood; Food addiction; Infancy; Lifespan; Prenatal.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Behavior, Addictive / diagnosis
  • Behavior, Addictive / prevention & control
  • Behavior, Addictive / psychology*
  • Fast Foods / adverse effects*
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology
  • Feeding Behavior / psychology
  • Food Addiction / diagnosis
  • Food Addiction / prevention & control
  • Food Addiction / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Longevity / physiology*