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Diet

Compulsive Overeating, Processed Foods, and Obesity

Overeating processed foods is linked to struggles with weight control.

Key points

  • For some people, eating too many highly processed foods takes a bigger toll on their health and weight than for others.
  • Some overeaters lose control of their eating behaviors when they consume foods especially high in sugar and fat.
  • Overeating highly processed foods has been linked to excessive weight gain.

Irresistible cravings, loss of self-control, continuous overeating in spite of negative consequences, and repeated failed attempts to reduce or eliminate food intake. These are all behaviors and patterns associated with compulsive eating. For some people, compulsive eating involves specific foods, particularly, highly processed foods that are loaded with refined carbohydrates (sugars) and fats.

Igorovsyannykov/Pixabay, used with permission
Supermarket shelves are packed with highly processed foods.
Source: Igorovsyannykov/Pixabay, used with permission

Some refer to uncontrollable overeating of processed foods as "food addiction." The concept of food addiction and its role in weight gain and obesity is controversial. However, many people who maintain a healthy weight also self-identify as food addicts, and others, including some experts, say it's impossible to become addicted to a food or food ingredient. In recent decades, science has garnered some support for the concept of food addiction by using brain scans and other research tools that reflect the effects of overeating certain types of foods on the pleasure centers located in the brain that are similar to the effects of some addictive drugs. But the evidence isn't solid; the backlash against the existence of food addictions continues.

Early research found that foods that are especially high in sugar, fat, or even salt, do trigger a release of “feel-good” brain chemicals (such as dopamine) in the same way the pleasure center of the brain responds to highly addictive drugs such as cocaine. Food differs from other potentially addictive substances such as nicotine and cocaine in that it is necessary for survival, and even though humans are evolutionarily designed to reap rewards from carbohydrates and fat because of the energy they provide, highly processed foods differ from natural foods in that they contain abnormally high concentrations of fats and sugars. Researchers say it’s these highly concentrated doses that cause some people to compulsively overeat and seemingly become addicted to them. And because the fiber that would normally slow down the absorption of these ingredients into the body has been stripped away in processed foods, the response to these trigger foods is much quicker than with natural foods.

When some people start to feel those rewards of pleasure and relief from eating certain foods, they immediately crave more and seemingly lose control over their eating behavior. They cannot put an end to overeating in spite of their own desire to stop, and even with the knowledge of inevitable weight gain and increased health risks. An abundance of salt and other flavor enhancers in processed foods serve to heighten their rewarding qualities, making them easier to overeat. For the average person, eating the same foods doesn’t provoke that same loss of control.

Some researchers feel that by acknowledging the existence of food addiction as something akin to an eating disorder, and recognizing the role of highly processed foods in triggering and reinforcing specific behaviors, studies could focus on treatments for those who over-consume unhealthy foods to the degree that they negatively affect their weight and well-being. It could also help initiate more research that supports policies to improve food production and promote public health interventions.

However, many experts and researchers refute the idea of food addiction as the involuntary overconsumption of highly processed foods and point out several contradictions. For example, those who identify as food addicts often point to processed foods with a high glycemic index as their main triggers, yet some unprocessed foods (i.e. carrots) also have a high glycemic index but don't trigger the same response. Food and weight issues existed long before highly processed foods even came to market, they point out.

While acknowledging the negative effects of highly processed foods on both physical and mental health, and the possible need for more regulation of the industries that mass produce these foods in order to safeguard public health, these researchers point out that solid evidence of specific foods and ingredients are considered responsible for addictive eating behavior and weight gain is still lacking.

The debate will continue, however, because there is an equal lack of evidence showing that highly processed foods are not addictive. As well, the addictive nature of other substances, such as tobacco and opioids, was denied for decades for some of the same reasons, and these products were heavily promoted to consumers, just like processed foods. The problem lies, in part, with the still-cloudy definition of addiction and the potential misclassifying of substances as addictive or nonaddictive.

References

Gearhardt A and Hebebrand J. The concept of “food addiction” helps inform the understanding of overeating and obesity: YES. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Feb 2021: 113(2): 263-267

https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/113/2/263/6059774?login=true

Hebebrand J and Gearhardt A. The concept of “food addiction" helps inform the understanding of overeating and obesity: NO. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Feb 2021: 113(2); 268-273

https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/113/2/268/6059773?login=true

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