kids and ultra processed food addiction

In today’s world, ultra-processed foods have become a staple in many diets, especially among young people. These foods are designed to be convenient, tasty, and affordable, but they come with hidden dangers that can significantly impact health. According to Dr. David Wiss, the effects of these foods go far beyond simple nutritional concerns. They can profoundly affect the brain, particularly the developing brains of children and adolescents, leading to addiction and unhealthy eating patterns.

Hijacking the Brain’s Reward System

“An addiction to ultra-processed foods can hijack a young brain’s reward circuitry, putting the primitive ‘reptilian brain,’ or amygdala, in charge — thus bypassing the prefrontal cortex where rational decision-making occurs,” explains Dr. Wiss. This means the amygdala, which governs instinctual responses and immediate gratification, takes over. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for thoughtful decision-making and self-control, is sidelined. This hijacking effect makes it incredibly difficult for young people to resist the lure of ultra-processed foods.

Shaping Expectations and Preferences

“Ultra-processed food addiction also teaches the young brain what to expect from food, like how much sugar-driven reward one should get from eating a snack,” says Wiss. When children regularly consume high-sugar, high-fat foods, their brains start to expect these intense flavors and rewards from all their foods. As a result, healthier options, such as fruits and vegetables, become less appealing. This conditioning can set lifelong eating habits, prioritizing immediate gratification over nutritional value. Science has shown that addiction-like eating can lead to dieting, which can, in turn, lead to disordered eating. 

The Biology of Addiction

“It’s almost virtually impossible for a child, or even a 14- or 15-year-old, to override all of this biology for very long,” Wiss adds. The combination of biological drives and the omnipresence of ultra-processed foods creates a perfect storm for addiction. Adolescents, whose brains are still developing, are particularly vulnerable. Their ability to make rational decisions about their diet is compromised, leading to a cycle of craving and consumption that is hard to break. It’s no surprise that eating disorders are on the rise. 

Confusing Harmful Substances with Survival Needs

“In a food environment that’s laden with ultra-processed foods, the brain is confusing experiences and substances that are harmful for experiences and substances that are survival-promoting,” says Wiss. This confusion is particularly dangerous because it tricks the brain into seeking out and consuming foods that are detrimental to health. The brain perceives these foods as essential for survival, reinforcing unhealthy behaviors like binge eating.

Strategies for Combating Ultra-Processed Food Addiction

Given the profound impact of ultra-processed food addiction on the brain, it is crucial to implement strategies to combat this issue:

  1. Education and Awareness: Educate children, parents, and educators about the effects of ultra-processed foods on the brain and body. Awareness is the first step toward change. This education should be provided by professionals who are aware of how such messages can confer risks for restriction and disordered eating. 
  2. Creating a Healthy Food Environment: Reduce the availability of ultra-processed foods at home and in schools. Stock up on whole, minimally processed foods that provide essential nutrients without addictive properties.
  3. Promoting Mindful Eating: Encourage mindful eating practices that help individuals appreciate the flavors and textures of natural, unprocessed foods. This can help retrain the brain to seek out and enjoy healthier options.
  4. Supportive Policies: Advocate for policies limiting the marketing and availability of ultra-processed foods, especially to children and adolescents. Support initiatives that promote healthier school meals and regulate the nutritional content of foods sold in schools.
  5. Professional Support: Seek help from dietitians and nutritionists who specialize in food addiction and eating disorders to develop personalized strategies for overcoming ultra-processed food addiction without succumbing to diet culture. 

Ultra-processed food addiction is a serious issue that affects the brain’s reward circuitry, shaping unhealthy eating habits and preferences from a young age. Dr. Wiss’s research highlights the importance of understanding the biological and psychological mechanisms at play. By raising awareness, creating supportive environments, and advocating for policy changes, we can help protect the developing brains of young people and promote healthier, more balanced diets.

Notwithstanding, many professionals do not support the concept of ultra-processed food addiction based on the assumption that it leads to rigid rules and failed attempts to diet. While this may be true in some cases, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about ultra-processed food addiction that have been debunked

If you are looking for eating disorder-informed support, please reach out to us for help.

Dr. David Wiss became a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) in 2013 and founded Nutrition in Recovery, a group practice of RDNs specializing in treating eating and substance use disorders. In 2017, David received the “Excellence in Practice” award at the National Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. The California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics awarded him the “Emerging Dietetic Leader Award” in 2020. He earned his Ph.D. from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health in the Community Health Sciences department (with a minor in Health Psychology) by investigating the links between adverse childhood experiences and various mental health outcomes among socially disadvantaged men. His treatment philosophy is based on a biopsychosocial model which incorporates an understanding of biological mechanisms, psychological underpinnings, and contextual factors that integrate the social determinants of health. Wise Mind Nutrition is an app-based interactive treatment program available for download now - https://wisemindnutrition.com/download.

Sign up to receive a monthly
Newsletter from Nutrition in Recovery

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.