Am I Addicted to Processed Food?   

Am I Addicted to Processed Food?

An assortment of chips and processed snacks in bowls on a table.

January 19, 2024

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Tara Piantadosi, RDN

There’s that distinct sound that toddlers and dogs can hear a mile away, the crinkling of a bag of chips opening. You may have just a few or a handful; before you know it, the bag is empty.

If you’ve found yourself at the bottom of an empty bag of chips or clutching the remnants of a package of cookies, you may have asked yourself, am I addicted to snack foods?

Registered dietitian, Tara Piantadosi, explains how ultra-processed foods may affect the brain and your overall health.

What are processed foods?

“When we think of the term ‘processed foods’, technically, what we really are thinking of is ‘ultra-processed foods,’” says Tara. “According to the USDA, the term ‘processed food’ includes any food that’s undergone changes to its natural state, so even a bag of packaged green beans is considered processed. Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, are things like cookies, cakes, chips and frozen meals.”

“While there is no official clinical diagnosis for being addicted to food, some foods can have a similar response in the brain as other addictive substances,” says Tara. “Salty, sugary or fatty ultra-processed foods can cause shift in dopamine in the brain.”

How does dopamine affect the brain?

When you do something pleasurable, like eat a freshly baked cookie or buy a new pair of shoes, the brain reacts by releasing the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that tells the brain, “We like what we’re doing! Let’s make sure we do it again!” 

Since the “feel-good” rush only lasts a short period, this can lead to habit formation. While this can be a positive reinforcement, like creating a regular exercise routine, it can also support harmful habits like alcohol or substance use.

“Comfort foods,” like sweets, snacks or starches, can be hard to resist once you’ve had a bite. When a restaurant brings bread to the table, do you finish the whole basket? This could be because of the surge of the “happy hormone,” dopamine. 

Am I addicted to processed food? 

“There is a validated scale, called the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which can evaluate how you're consuming food and determine any symptoms of dependency on certain foods,” says Tara. “The use of this scale, while it doesn’t necessarily define a food addiction and is used for research purposes, suggests that people can be addicted to substances within foods like they’re addicted to alcohol and other drugs.

If you’re having difficulty finding moderation in the foods you eat, here are a couple of questions to consider: 

  • Are you eating more than you intend to?
  • Are you eating even when you’re not hungry?
  • Does overeating cause you to feel ill? 
  • Have your eating habits impacted your relationships or responsibilities?

Health Risks Associated with Processed Foods

The “Western Diet,” or standardized American diet, is high in fat, sodium, added sugars and saturated fats – consuming this type of diet leads to a higher risk of diseases, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Inflammation
  • Stroke
  • Increased cancer risk

“There’s literature that shows that processed meats, like bacon and sausage, can cause an increased risk of colon cancer and stomach cancers,” Tara says. “Part of this risk is due to the added nitrates (a kind of preservative), but also likely because most Americans aren’t getting enough fiber, and fiber has been shown to decrease the risk of cancer.”

Ditch the Fast Food: Easy Meals to Prep at Home

Preparing food in advance can stop you from wanting to grab that frozen burrito or stopping for fast food on your way to work. 

Here are a couple of nutritious, easy-to-make options you can prepare for your busy week.

Breakfast:

  • Hard-boiled eggs with whole fruit for a “grab and go” option
  • Overnight oats - you can add nuts and seeds for protein and top with fruit
  • Greek yogurt - add in fruit and nuts for added fiber and protein

Snack:

  • Piece of fruit and a handful of nuts
  • Hummus with pretzels

Lunch

  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread - use peanut butter that’s just the nuts, not added oils or sugars, and whole grain bread
  • Salad - incorporate a variety of vegetables and top with a lean protein, like legumes, chicken or fish
  • Roasted vegetable sandwich or chicken breast sandwich, steering clear from processed meats

Dinner

  • Frozen whole grain brown rice with frozen vegetables along with some kind of protein like beans or grilled chicken

“These options still use convenience items, but are less ultra-processed!” says Tara.

Slow Down, Savor Your Meals

Lastly, slow down while you are eating and savor your meals. 

“There are hormones that help to regulate hunger and fullness, sending messages to the brain, but that messaging can take up to 20 minutes after you begin eating,” says Tara. “What often happens is people eat very quickly, and the stomach hasn’t had time to send that messaging out, so people tend to overeat.” 

“Just remember, one ultra-processed food is not going to make you unhealthy, what is more important is making more healthful, nutrient-dense choices more often than opting for processed meals,” Tara concludes.

What to Do If You Think You Are Addicted to Processed Foods

Tara recommends trying mindful eating practices, and if you have concerns about what you are eating or how you are consuming food, you should meet with a registered dietitian who can better evaluate your intake and help you make positive changes. 

Meeting with groups like Overeaters Anonymous can be another helpful support system. 

Next Steps & Resources: 

  • Meet our source: Tara Piantadosi, MS, RDN
  • To make an appointment with a doctor near you, call 800-822-8905 or visit our website.

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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