Whenever I open a “sharing” bag of my favourite crisps (150g, five servings), I never mean to eat them all. Sometimes I succeed in eating only half and putting the rest back in the cupboard. But the open packet preys on my mind. I can’t concentrate on anything else until I take it out again and scoff the lot, licking every last bit of the tangy, salty coating off my fingers. It’s incredibly delicious. But immediately afterwards I feel a bit sick, and a bit ashamed, and vow never to do it again. Sooner or later, of course, I do.
It might not be crisps for you. It might be chocolate, or ice-cream, or fizzy drinks. These ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which we know are extremely harmful to health, are designed to be hyper-palatable and overeaten. Now researchers believe they are not just hard to resist – they are actually addictive. An analysis of 281 studies in 36 countries by scientists from the US, Spain and Brazil, published in the BMJ, found that 14% of adults and 12% of children have a food addiction, and the food they are addicted to is ultra-processed.
The lead author of the review, Prof Ashley Gearhardt of the University of Michigan, created the Yale Food Addiction Scale in 2009 to measure the problem. “I took the standard diagnostic criteria for alcohol, nicotine, cocaine and heroin, and translated them to food,” she explains. The criteria include excessive intake, loss of control over consumption, cravings, continued use despite negative consequences and withdrawal. If a person has had two or more symptoms over the past year, coupled with “significant impairment or distress”, this is classed as a food addiction.
Gearhardt tells me about some of the extreme examples of food addiction she has come across in her research. One patient with type 2 diabetes knew the risks of continuing to eat high-sugar foods: amputation, blindness, death. Despite desperately wanting to stop, she couldn’t. She wouldn’t eat just one doughnut – she would eat the whole box. “She said: ‘I just can’t resist.’” Gearhardt likens the case to people with lung cancer who are unable to stop smoking.