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Ultra-Processed Food

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How Ultra-Processed Food May Affect Your Brain

Written by BBC

The way ultra-processed foods may affect the brain has caused concern among some health experts. They suggest brain changes caused by eating a diet high in these foods can make cutting down on them difficult, especially for younger people.

What’s The Concern?

The release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain creates the feeling of pleasure. It registers all pleasure in the same way, whether it’s in response to drugs, money, positive experiences or food. Neuroscientist Nora Volkow links this with our basic instinct for survival: “For most of evolution, food was scarce”, she says, so you needed this motivation to survive.

The highs of dopamine release from food are lower, and the speed slower, than with many known addictive substances such as drugs. Although this means food is less addictive than them, the accessibility, convenience and low-cost of it makes it difficult to avoid.

Research shows some foods, particularly those high in fat and sugar (as many ultra-processed foods are), stimulate a greater sense of reward than others. This can lead to a “dietary pleasure trap”, according to psychologist Dr Douglas Lisle, as your biological instincts tell you “to seek the most pleasure for the least pain and the least effort”.

Dopamine may also interact with the neurotransmitter glutamate, which plays a role in habit learning, craving and relapse.

In a BBC documentary, Dr Chris van Tulleken ate 80 percent ultra-processed foods for a month – the same percentage as a fifth of the population eat, according to research. Over the four-week experiment, an activity scan of his brain showed areas responsible for reward linked with areas that drive repetitive, automatic behaviour. “These were connections that weren’t there before”, he said, adding it is a similar response to that expected of someone taking addictive drugs, such as alcohol or cigarettes. The changes lasted for more than six weeks after the experiment ended.

The above image (left) shows van Tulleken’s existing brain connections in blue. New connections, in red, were made during a month of eating a diet high in ultra-processed foods. On the right is a 3D representation showing the new connections made during the experiment. The larger area at the front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is known for reward-based decision-making, and the small area at the back, the cerebellum, is involved with automatic behaviours, according to van Tulleken.

Just Looking At Food Can Trigger Cravings

Repeated frequent consumption of these highly rewarding foods can cause a loss of ability to “control the strong urges” to eat them. The more you trigger dopamine, the less impactful it will become, and the more of the food you will need to sustain the same enjoyment, according to Dr Lisle.

Dopamine production even starts to increase when you are looking at, smelling, hearing or thinking about the food, according to Volkow, and this enhances your motivation to eat it. “Dismissal of addiction and obesity as problems of self-control ignore the fact that for us to be able to exert self-control, we require the proper function of the areas in our brains that regulate our behaviours”, says Volkow.

Ultra-Processed Food And Younger People

Recent research from Imperial College London (ICL) found British children get 60 percent of their calories from ultra-processed food, and for one in five it rises to 78 percent.

Some researchers suggest adolescents are more vulnerable to the effects of ‘rewarding foods’. This is because their brain’s ability to assess risks, and control behaviour, continues to develop until the age of about 25. Also, there is evidence dopamine is particularly abundant during adolescence, so the brain rapidly learns about rewards.

The ICL research highlights that eating patterns established in childhood may continue into adulthood.

Does All This Matter If The Food Is Nutritious?

Chris van Tulleken based his experiment on ultra-processed foods. But some ultra-processed foods have health benefits.

The term ‘ultra-processed food’ “is part of an active area of debate amongst scientists”, according to the Food and Drink Federation’s Chief Scientific Officer, Kate Halliwell. She says some studies suggest the focus should be on the nutritional balance of our diet rather than the level of processing.

Another study found participants ate more calories when on an ultra-processed diet than on a non-processed diet that was matched in terms of fat, sugar and salt. Participants’ blood tests showed an increase in the hormone responsible for hunger and a decrease in the hormone that makes us feel full, among those eating a diet high in ultra-processed foods.

Van Tulleken’s hunger hormone increased by 30 percent during his experiment, which may have encouraged over-consumption.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. There is no definition of “ultra-processed food”. There is probably no definition of “processing” either.
    A lot of traditional foods (such as the starch extracted from fern bracken by pre-European Maori) would be “ultra-processed” (and also very bad for the environment, what with all the forest burning).

    Many ethnic, natural, and so-called “health” foods are.
    Tofu is also “ultra-processed”.

    I suspect that “ultra-processed food” means “food produced by a hated white-man’s capitalist global corporation” such as McDonald’s.
    Ajinomoto says: “Hold my beer.”

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  2. There may not be a definition of “ultra processed” food but we’re not short of examples. eg Chesdale cheese slices where the wrapper looks less like plastic than the cheese itself & probably tastes better. Then we have ice cream that is 20% aerosol by volume. How about a nutritious feed of frozen, crumbed fish “fillets” which are the waste from the factory ships ground up, bleached, glued together with gelatine & pressed into a nice triangular shape? Then you can wash it all down with a nice glass of red or white wine bulked out with sugared water & added ethanol.

    Even the family dog survives on dog roll which consists of cheap grain leavened with emulsified fat & brought up to the minimum protein level with meat or fish meal.

    If the unwashed knew what went into their comfort food we would become a nation of anorexics!

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    • When I shop at Pac n’ Sav, I usually buy:
      – Fruit and vegetables
      – Meat (raw)
      – Flour and baking ingredients
      – Rice / pasta
      – Toilet paper / tissue, etc.
      – Cat litter (to go on top of the New Zealand Herald pages in the litter boxes in the garage)
      – Canned tomato or tuna
      – Milk / cheese 1 kg blocks
      – Cheap red wine
      – Oats (for Bircher museli)

      I can’t help but see the contents of some of the other trolleys:
      – Breads, wraps and other fancy baked items
      – Packets of frozen vegetables
      – Frozen wedges and fries
      – Many bottles of Coca Cola and other soft drinks
      – Canned cat food
      – Microwavable meals in packets for busy people
      – Processed meats and pies
      – Frozen pizzas
      – Confectionary
      – Fancy breakfast cereals

      My conclusion: People are addicted to fatty, salty, sweet foods. They have no time nor the inclination to cook. The fatter, browner shoppers buy a disproportional amount of branded and non-branded (usually raspberry) carbonated soft drinks. (And tobacco products.)

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      • I’m with you O-Sen. We eat the odd pre-packaged food but I generally make it from scratch. Tastes so much better and you know what you’re eating. Those supermarket frozen pizzas are dry and ‘orrible. A lot of people are lazy or have no idea how much better real food tastes. Now that is addictive!

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  3. There is nothing wrong with processing food. All “processed” means is that something has been done to change the structure of the food or to add something to it or take away something from it.
    It’s not the processing. It’s what they add to (or remove from) the food that is the problem.

    Anyone capable of basic critical thinking can figure this out for themselves.

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