Addictive substances such as opiates and other drugs are highly reinforcing and some (but not all) individuals consume them compulsively. Highly processed (HP) foods have unnaturally high concentrations of refined carbohydrates and fat. These foods are highly reinforcing and some (but not all) individuals consume them compulsively. HP foods, like addictive substances, are more effective in activating reward-related neural systems than minimally processed foods. More importantly, HP foods are associated with the behavioral indicators of addiction: diminished control over consumption, strong craving, continued use despite negative consequences, and repeated failed attempts to reduce or eliminate intake. Thus, HP foods are key in addictive patterns of food intake. Like addictive drugs, HP foods are complex, human-made substances designed to effectively deliver reinforcing ingredients (e.g., refined carbohydrates, fat). Withdrawal and tolerance are not necessary for an addiction classification; however, HP foods can trigger both these processes. On a public health level, the negative consequences of HP foods are high, even for those without clinically relevant levels of addictive eating. The recognition that some foods can be addictive will inform clinical obesity treatment and underscore the importance of environmentally focused policy interventions.
Keywords: addiction; food environment; industry; policy; processed food; tolerance; withdrawal.
© The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Nutrition.