You might have heard that sugar is highly addictive (it's what we're always driving home here at IQS) but new research highlights that around 14% of us are hooked on ultra-processed foods in general – chips and crackers and cakes, oh my!
“It’s like trying to quit smoking,” Professor and author of the research, Ashley Gearhardt, tells The Guardian.
In a ground-breaking study, the addiction-inducing power of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) like potato chips, cakes and instant noodles, has come to light. Contrary to the age-old assumption that willpower is the sole factor behind overindulging in potato chips or sugary cereals, research now suggests that the blame may fall squarely on the addictive nature of these processed treats. A comprehensive analysis, combing through 281 studies conducted across 36 countries, has exposed a startling revelation: over 1 in 7 adults worldwide find themselves ensnared by the clutches of UPFs.
What Exactly Are Ultra-Processed Foods?
These are typically factory-made products, crafted from ingredients like sugars, oils, fats, starches, and various additives. They often include artificial flavours and preservatives, along with little to no whole, unprocessed foods. Think of fast food, frozen pizza, sugary cereals, soft drink, and snack foods – they're all classic examples of UPFs.
What makes UPFs so insidiously alluring? The answer lies in their meticulously engineered combination of ingredients. These foods are expertly designed to tantalise our taste buds and manipulate our brain chemistry. They often contain high levels of added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium. Research suggests that this specific combination triggers a hedonic response in the brain, leading to addiction-like behaviour.
The connection between UPFs and a range of health problems is undeniable. Notably, these foods have been associated with cognitive decline, cancer, psychological distress and early mortality. But why do these health issues persist?
Cognitive Decline: Excessive consumption of UPFs has been linked to cognitive decline, primarily due to their low nutritional value. These foods can lead to inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, contributing to memory problems and impaired cognitive function.
Cancer: The chemicals and additives found in UPFs can be carcinogenic. Regular consumption of these foods is associated with a higher risk of developing various forms of cancer.
Psychological Distress: A diet heavy in UPFs is often deficient in essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. This nutritional deficit can negatively impact mental health and lead to conditions like anxiety and depression.
Early Mortality: Alarming research suggests that people who consume higher amounts of UPFs are more likely to die prematurely. The combination of poor nutrition and the high-calorie content of these foods contributes to obesity and related health problems.
Our Addiction to Ultra-Processed Foods
We’re getting hooked on savoury and sweet ultra-processed snacks at younger and younger ages, with one study finding that kids are taking in the bulk of their daily calories from these highly-processed foods. It followed 30, 000 children between the ages of 2 and 17, finding that a whopping 67% of their intake came from the ultra-processed category. While these foods might be palatable, they can cause inflammation in the body, throwing kids’ gut microbiome out of order and leaving them vulnerable to disease and infection. Research shows Aussies are taking in highly-processed foods at soaring rates, making a sizeable contribution to the global obesity epidemic. Studies have revealed this rapid rise in sales and consumption of these foods are part of what's driving mass cases of preventable diseases. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 67% of us are overweight or obese, a rise of around 4% since 2015. If we don’t make a change, there’ll be around 18 million Aussies overweight or obese before 2030. Let’s take a look at what these processed foods actually entail – they are generally loaded with preservatives and sugar, often processed into an unrecognisable form, for instance, turning corn into corn chips. But one of the most dangerous ingredients in these foods is the sugar – specifically the fructose. This stuff has been directly linked to the development of obesity, due to the way our bodies metabolise it. Unlike glucose, fructose can’t be further broken down in our bodies and instead requires the liver to metabolise it. When we overdo it on the fructose – without the sugar-slowing fibre – our livers are put under the gun. The result is visceral fat, which, unlike subcutaneous fat, is the dangerous kind which wraps around the abdominal organs and leads to diseases like obesity, heart disease and liver disease. But that’s not the only danger – researchers have found excess fructose can lead to leptin resistance. Leptin is the hormone that signals our fullness to the brain, and without it we’ll keep craving more. So it really isn’t a matter of willpower! When it comes to obesity, there are powerful hormonal signals to content with, not to mention the domino effect throughout our whole body when our hormones are out of whack.
What we choose to eat directly influences our hormones, and trying to fight your hormones is no easy feat – and while we can absolutely turn things around by reintroducing whole foods and probiotics, there’s no doubt that sugar is addictive, and it’s one of the major ingredients added to ultra-processed foods in excess. But it’s not just the sugar that’s got us hooked – this is because the unique combination of unhealthy fats, sugars and additives in UPFs often creates what is called a hedonic response in the brain. This response is a heightened sense of pleasure associated with the specific taste and mouthfeel of these foods. So even if you cut sugar out, you’re still risking your health if you continue to eat foods rich in preservatives and trans fats. As you consume UPFs more frequently, your cravings for these specific tastes become stronger. This can lead to a cycle of compulsive eating, as the brain signals an overwhelming desire for these foods.
Breaking Free from the Grip of UPFs
Now that we're aware of the dangers of UPFs and their addictive nature, it's time to consider ways to break free from their grasp:
- Educate Yourself: Understanding the risks of UPFs is the first step. Familiarise yourself with what counts as ultra-processed food. Many of us are surprised to learn that some of our favourite staples – think cereals and frozen meals – are actually ultra-processed foods, even if the packaging has “healthy” stamped all over it.
- Read Labels: Always check the ingredient labels on packaged foods. Avoid those with a long list of unrecognisable ingredients and high levels of sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.
- Opt for Whole Foods: Prioritise whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. These provide essential nutrients and are less likely to be addictive.
- Home Cooking: Preparing your meals at home allows you to have control over the ingredients you use and ensures you consume fewer UPFs.
- Seek Support: If you're struggling to reduce your intake of UPFs, consider seeking help from a healthcare professional or nutritionist. Support groups can also provide valuable assistance.
Need a little help getting your health back on track? Join us for the 8-Week Program and we’ll help you change the way you look at food – and that doesn’t mean you have to follow restrictive diets or miss out on your favourite foods; we believe you can still enjoy delicious food without jeopardising your health. With celebrity chef Sarah Glover on our panel of experts, you’ll have an array of fun recipes at your fingertips, along with our own exclusive armoury of simple, tasty and healthy recipes for everything from daily meals to impressive entertaining. We know it can be hard to stick to your health goals – especially when you’re trying to manage it alone. When you sign up with us, you’ll have access to clear-cut meal plans, community support and exclusive access to our sugar-free content. Here’s what’s on offer:
- 8 weeks of meal plans and shopping lists.
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- Support and guidance from the I Quit Sugar team.
- Exclusive content from our panel of experts.
So, if you’re ready to ditch sugar and the host of maladies that come with it, it’s not too late to join. We’d love to help you get started on your health journey. Sign up HERE today!