Researchers Say These Foods Have The Same Addictive Qualities As Tobacco

The comfort foods you reach for to feel better when you're stressed or anxious could be the same food that actually makes you feel worse overall. Highly processed foods are often loaded with fats, sugar, and refined carbohydrates (per Virginia Tech). Most people realize these foods are unhealthy, but they are also quick and easy to prepare or eat straight from the package. That convenience and their dopamine-inducing ingredients make them hard to resist, especially when you're feeling stressed or rushed. 

According to the University of Michigan, every year, millions of people try to cut down on junk food, and each year many of them fail. The Lancet says unhealthy diets are more dangerous to your health than risky sex, alcohol, tobacco, and drug use combined. But why is it so hard to break free from unhealthy foods? It's the same reason people have trouble quitting bad habits like smoking or drinking alcohol. Researchers say these foods have the same addictive qualities as tobacco.

Poor diets contribute to preventable deaths as much as cigarettes

Similar to tobacco, the ingredients in highly-processed foods like chips, donuts, fast food, and soft drinks have mood-altering effects and trigger compulsive behaviors driven by intense cravings (via Virginia Tech). Alex DiFeliceantonio, associate director of the Center for Health Behaviors Research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, stated per Virginia Tech, "No one is going and grabbing the broccoli." Instead, people reach for highly processed foods that flood the brain's reward circuits with dopamine, similar to nicotine (via News Wise). Processed foods lack fiber, a dietary necessity, and they often contain unrecognizable ingredients as well as high quantities of added sugar, salt, carbs, and fat.

As DiFeliceantonio explained via Virginia Tech, "The ability of highly processed foods to rapidly [deliver] unnaturally high doses of refined carbohydrates and fat appear key to their addictive potential." DiFeliceantonio and Ashley N. Gearhardt, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, explained that this addictive potential "may be a key factor contributing to the high public health costs associated with a food environment dominated by cheap, accessible and heavily marketed" highly processed foods.

News Medical Life Sciences notes that the addictive nature of highly processed food is highlighted by the fact that people cannot cut back on it even when faced with life-threatening illnesses like heart disease or diabetes. Today, poor diets contribute to preventable deaths to the same degree as cigarettes and other tobacco products.