Who hasn’t had the sensation of tunneling through a large bag of potato chips or eating more donuts than intended? A growing body of evidence shows that this phenomenon isn’t due to a lack of willpower—it may be caused by a condition called ultra-processed food addiction.

Highly processed foods are addictive for some people because they trigger the cravings, compulsive consumption, and other traits associated with tobacco or alcohol substance use disorder. In fact, up to 20 percent of adults and 15 percent of kids and adolescents have signs of addiction to ultra-processed foods.

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Ultra-processed foods “deliver unnaturally high doses in an unnaturally fast way, often in unnaturally high combinations of rewarding ingredients,” says Ashley Gearhardt, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and a key researcher in the field.

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A study Gearhardt published in 2022 applied the same criteria to these foods used in the 1988 U.S. Surgeon General’s report to determine whether tobacco products were addictive. It concluded the foods meet all criteria. Ultra-processed foods can trigger compulsive behaviors, Gearhardt found, pointing to studies where obese rats ignored their standard food and risked electric shock to get to industrial produced cakes and chocolates. The foods are sufficiently rewarding to drive repeat consumption. And they yield mood-altering effects, with “euphoria” scores after eating some foods like that following nicotine injection in smokers.

Read the complete article in National Geographic.