Could a craving for salty chips actually be a sign of addiction?
A new study from the University of Michigan suggests that could be the case.
Researchers reviewed 281 studies from 36 different countries, finding that 14% of adults and 12% of children showed signs of addiction to ultra–processed foods, according to the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS).
That’s close to the addiction levels seen for alcohol and tobacco, noted the study article, which was published in the journal BMJ.
Ultra-processed foods are those that are high in carbohydrates and fats, such as candy, ice cream and potato chips.
The study suggests that some people’s consumption of these foods may meet the criteria for substance use disorder, resulting in the “biopsychological mechanisms of addiction and clinically significant problems.”
Part of the reason that ultra-processed foods have addictive properties is that they deliver fats and carbs to the gut much faster than minimally processed foods, the researchers wrote.
These foods also contain flavor and texture additives that could make them more addictive.
“There is converging and consistent support for the validity and clinical relevance of ultra-processed food addiction,” said lead researcher Ashley Gearhardt, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, in a press release announcing the study.
“By acknowledging that certain types of processed foods have the properties of addictive substances, we may be able to help improve global health.”
Tanya Freirich, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Charlotte, North Carolina, who was not involved in the study, called out several warning signs of addictive behaviors surrounding food.
These include thinking about food all the time or obsessively, craving foods when not hungry, craving foods as a coping mechanism, eating even after feeling full, having reduced control over intake, experiencing symptoms of withdrawal, and continuing to eat certain foods despite negative consequences.
“While you can enjoy food thoroughly, being addicted to food starts to veer into an unhealthy territory with detrimental effects for the rest of your life,” Freirich told Fox News Digital.
“For example, overeating past the point of comfort or to the point of causing digestive distress, or struggling to concentrate on other topics besides food and meals, can be signs of a food addiction.”
Gearhardt noted that 103 countries have passed “sugar-sweetened beverage taxes,” and several others have additional taxes for ultra-processed foods.
More than 20 countries have also added nutrition labels to these foods, she wrote.
“It’s essential to understand the addiction to these ultra-processed foods globally, particularly in low- and middle-income countries,” Gearhardt said in the release.
“Chronic dieting, food shame, food accessibility and even early childhood feeding experiences can all be tied back to food choices and disordered eating habits.”
“It will take courageous action to change these and other economic and structural factors that drive people toward ultra-processed foods.”
Freirich noted that many countries have banned the production of foods with certain additives that are shown to be detrimental.
“The USDA and FDA could make similar steps to ensure that foods are safe for consumption,” she recommended.
Erin Palinski-Wade, a New Jersey-based dietitian with a focus on diabetes and nutrition, is skeptical that foods can be as addictive as drugs. (She was not involved in the study.)
“Although foods rich in added sugar may stimulate the feel-good chemicals in the brain and become habit-forming, sugar itself is not addictive in the way cocaine or another drug may be,” she told Fox News Digital.
“Consuming sugar and then reducing or eliminating it from the diet will not result in withdrawal symptoms or side effects as would happen from a true addiction,” she continued.
“Food cravings are complex and tied into not just the nutrition profile of a food, but also the emotions and learned behaviors around eating.”
Emotions, stress, overall metabolic health, sleep habits and learned feeding behaviors all shape people’s food choices, behaviors and responses, Palinski-Wade said.
“A food craving or binge-eating is almost always tied to an emotional response,” she said. “Chronic dieting, food shame, food accessibility and even early childhood feeding experiences can all be tied back to food choices and disordered eating habits.”
Although she believes that no single food is addictive, Palinski-Wade acknowledged that foods that are high in added sugar or added fats tend to be associated with the strongest cravings and desire.
“These foods often trigger the release of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine in the brain, leading to cravings and potentially addictive-like eating behaviors,” she said.
“As you consume more and more of these foods, you build up a dopamine tolerance, meaning that you will have to eat even more of this food to experience the same pleasure response,” Palinksi-Wade said — which can contribute to the development of cravings and loss of control over eating behavior.
More research is still needed to fully understand the relationship between food and addiction, the experts all agreed.
The University of Michigan study was a review and compilation of many other studies’ data, Freirich pointed out.
“Ideally, to see if the type of food made a difference, you could run a controlled study with people consuming one meal plan with ultra-processed foods and another with minimally processed foods and then measure their reactions — thoughts about food, rated enjoyment of food, cravings and dopamine levels,” she said.
Those who are struggling with disordered eating, binge-eating or uncontrolled food cravings should work directly with a therapist or registered dietitian experienced in eating disorders, Palinski-Wade recommended.
“They can help you to better understand your behaviors and emotions around food and improve your relationship with food so that cravings and addictive behaviors can decrease,” she said.
Additionally, Freirich recommended filling the majority of meals with minimally processed foods, as consuming more of these may result in eating fewer ultra-processed foods.
“Lastly, speak to a dietitian about how to get started on changing your diet for your personal health goals,” she said.
Fox News Digital reached out to the University of Michigan researcher for additional comments.