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Study: Ice Cream and Chips Are As Addictive As Cocaine

Study: Ice Cream and Chips Are As Addictive As Cocaine

We’ve all been there – that irresistible bag of potato chips or bowl of ice cream. You reach for just one, and before you know it, you’ve devoured the whole thing. But don’t blame it on your lack of willpower; junk food is made to be incredibly addictive.

A new study led by University of Michigan professor Ashley Gearhardt found that ultra-processed foods are just as addictive as cocaine and nicotine.

What exactly are UPFs? It’s foods — such as chips, ice cream, candy, soft drinks and more — that have previously been associated with cognitive decline, cancer, psychological distress and premature death.

Gearhardt’s team applied the same criteria used to diagnose substance addiction to create the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which includes uncontrollable consumption, cravings and continued intake despite health risks.

“The combination of refined carbohydrates and fats often found in UPFs seems to have a supra-additive effect on brain reward systems, above either macronutrient alone, which may increase the addictive potential of these foods,” Gearhardt said.

But what makes UPFs so addictive, and why is it more prevalent than addiction to single substances like nicotine?

One theory suggests that it’s not a single ingredient that makes these foods addicting, unlike nicotine in tobacco. Instead, it’s the combination of high levels of carbohydrates and fats in UPFs. While natural foods usually have higher levels of either carbs or fats, UPFs boast disproportionately high levels of both.

Past research has also shown that sugary or fatty foods make healthier alternatives less appealing, potentially leading to overconsumption and weight gain. Consuming UPFs triggers a dopamine rush followed by a sudden drop-off, creating a cycle of craving, seeking satisfaction and crashing — similar to the behavior of someone addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Gearhardt’s team noted that not everyone is equally susceptible to the addictive qualities of these foods, similar to how people can try alcohol or cigarettes without developing problematic relationships with these substances.

Nevertheless, the addictive nature of UPFs has raised concerns among health-conscious scientists. Some suggest that these foods should come with a “tobacco-style” advisory, given their ubiquity in our food supply, but many experts believe that would have about as much impact as getting someone in the 1960s to quit smoking.

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