Are Processed Sugary Foods Drugs?

Sandee LaMotte, in a recent CNN Health article, profiles a 54-year-old Chicago native’s addiction to sugary food and states, “Some 12% of the nearly 73 million children and adolescents in the United States today struggle with a similar food addiction, according to research. To be diagnosed, children must meet Yale Food Addiction Scale criteria as stringent as any for alcohol use disorder or other addictions.”

I was driven to eat and eat and eat, and while I would overeat healthy food, what really got me were the candies, the cakes, the pies, the ice cream. I really gravitated towards the sugary ultraprocessed foods — it was like a physical drive, I had to have it,” he said. “My parents would find hefty bags full of candy wrappers hidden in my closet. I would steal things from stores as a kid and later as an adult.

– Jeffrey Odwazny, former warehouse supervisor on CNN Health

According to the Yale research, around 12% of the nearly 73 million children and adolescents in the United States today struggle with a similar food addiction.

Ashley Gearhardt, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who conducted the research and developed the Yale addiction scale, told CNN Health:

  • Kids are losing control and eating to the point where they feel physically ill.
  • They have intense cravings and may be sneaking, stealing or hiding ultraprocessed foods. They may stop going out with friends or doing other activities they used to enjoy in order to stay at home and eat, or they feel too sluggish from overeating to participate in other activities.
  • By age 2 or 3, children are likely eating more ultraprocessed foods in any given day than a fruit or vegetable, especially if they’re poor and don’t have enough money in their family to have enough quality food to eat. Ultraprocessed foods are cheap and literally everywhere, so this is also a social justice issue.

The article deep-dives into how ultraprocessed addictive foods hijack our brain. “Sugar creates the same amount of dopamine release that mimics what you see with nicotine and ethanol — around 150% to 200% above baseline. Cocaine is much more addictive, between 1,000% and 2,000% above baseline. But animals still often choose a sweet taste over cocaine.”

David Wiss, a Los Angeles registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in treating food addiction, tol;d CNN Health “Micronutrients are typically destroyed, which include the vitamins, minerals and antioxidant compounds that are known to confer health benefits. Children who eat a lot of ultraprocessed foods could well be malnourished.”