DR MAX: This is why ultra-processed foods are addictive in the same way as cocaine


Step away from the Coco Pops! Put down that spoon! Put away that bowl! Last week author and associate professor Dr Chris van Tulleken held up a packet of the aforementioned cereal to the House of Lords select committee on food, diet and obesity, and argued that it, and other ‘harmful’ junk food, should be stripped of health claims and banned from advertising.

He was one of a number of experts who spoke to Parliament about the blight of junk food, particularly when it comes to children. Dr van Tulleken accused the mass-produced food industry of acting in a similar way to big tobacco by selling addictive products which could be harmful.

It’s a subject he’s written about in his latest book Ultra-processed People: Why Do We Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food And Why Can’t We Stop, which was serialised by the Daily Mail, and exposes the horrifying health effects — including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer — of junk food and the merciless tactics companies use to peddle their products to an unsuspecting public.

‘Poor diet has overtaken tobacco as the leading cause of death globally — and poor diet means an ultra-processed diet,’ he argues.

It’s hard not to agree. While not addictive in the same way as alcohol or heroin, processed food is often carefully made to light up our reward pathways.

'Poor diet has overtaken tobacco as the leading cause of death globally ¿ and poor diet means an ultra-processed diet,' Dr Chris van Tulleken argues

‘Poor diet has overtaken tobacco as the leading cause of death globally — and poor diet means an ultra-processed diet,’ Dr Chris van Tulleken argues

This is similar to how cocaine works on the brain and can create a strong desire to seek out the ‘reward’ again and again — a type of psychological addiction. I’ve seen this many times.

Patients simply don’t seem able to stop eating processed food and feel out of control with it in a way they don’t with other types of food. The cravings can be extreme as our brains try to get us into firing up that reward pathway again and again.

This isn’t an accident — these foods are carefully crafted to maximise the effect they have on our reward pathways, making them incredibly alluring.

It’s easy to say people should just learn some self-discipline, but for many these little moments of ‘reward’ are intoxicating and incredibly difficult to resist.

After all, we are hard-wired to seek out reward and it’s a tough instinct to fight, especially if you’re a child.

Manufacturers effectively use our neurology against us to help sell their products.

Now, I should confess that I love Coco Pops. There’s always a box in my cupboard. But they are a rare treat — perhaps once a month, maximum.

Meanwhile, I eat healthily and exercise regularly. I eat plenty of vegetables and fruit, only eat lean meat such as chicken and fish and avoid processed food. So, once in a while, I think it’s fine to indulge. I’m not a monk, for goodness sake — I need some vices and it could be a lot worse than the occasional bowl of processed, sugary cereal.

But for many people, this kind of highly processed food is a mainstay of their diet. For many, processed food is a key source of nutrition, featuring in every meal, often multiple times.

It’s particularly worrying for children, whose bodies are still growing and developing.

There’s clear evidence of the negative impact ultra-processed food has, not only on physical health, but on mental health, too. A study from Harvard last year found that eating ultra-processed food (UPF) increased the risk of depression, for example. 

The study found participants in the top fifth of consumers of UPFs — eating nine or more servings per day — had a 50 per cent higher risk of developing depression than those in the bottom fifth, eating four or fewer servings per day.

Other studies have also found links to anxiety and cognitive decline. But why? Scientists have made some headway into answering this tricky question. UPFs are high in carbohydrates, saturated fat and energy, and low in protein and fibre.

This kind of combination is not seen in unprocessed food. This, along with the additives such as stabilisers and emulsifiers that increase shelf life and improve taste and texture, create inflammation in the body, known to increase the risk of mental and physical health problems.

Many UPFs are low in micronutrients — such as niacin, pyridoxine, copper, selenium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc — chemicals the body needs in small amounts to function properly, meaning we’re eating food that isn’t really food in the nutritional sense.

I’m a libertarian and think people should be free to make choices about their lives, including what they eat.

But let’s not forget many of these products are aggressively marketed to children and cash-strapped families who don’t know the health implications of the things they put in their shopping trolley each week.

Surely the least firms peddling these kind of products should be made to do is warn those eating them of the health dangers?

Many adults and teenagers with severe hair loss are set to benefit from Ritlecitinib, a breakthrough drug that can trigger regrowth in just six months. It’s been described as a ‘monumental day’ for sufferers of alopecia areata, which can be devastating in many ways, for thousands. 

How Robin became a victim of fame 

There has been an outpouring of sadness after former Strictly star Robin Windsor died last week aged 44.

He was very open about his mental health struggles and was a passionate advocate for other sufferers. I interviewed him a few years ago about this and he was an absolute pleasure to talk to.

But he had also spoken about the impact of being dropped by Strictly after an injury. He was so upset he couldn’t watch the BBC show and fell into a deep depression.

Strictly stars: Robin Windsor with dance partner Kristina Rihanoff

Strictly stars: Robin Windsor with dance partner Kristina Rihanoff

The chill that people experience when the warmth of the limelight moves on to someone else can be devastating. I saw this when I worked privately and treated a number of former stars who had resorted to drink or drug use or developed crippling low self-esteem when their star waned — almost always through no fault of their own.

The celebrity world is cruel and capricious. It sucks people in and spits them out. This makes me worried about the number of young people who dream of stardom. Fame should come with a health warning.

Women who experience a still birth or miscarriage before 24 weeks will be able to apply to the government for a ‘baby loss certificate’. The scheme aims to recognise the devastating impact of loss during pregnancy and help grieving families move forward.

I think this is such a good idea. Miscarriage affects people in very different ways. While for some, they understand it as part of nature and move on, for others, it can be horrendous and hang over them for years.

I have spoken to several patients over the years who have struggled to move on precisely because there is so little acknowledgement of their distress. This will help.

Dr Max prescribes… 

Wendy’s memoir 

Wendy Mitchell died last week, aged 68, after a battle with young-onset vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s. She decided to stop eating and drinking in a bid to end her life. Her best-selling 2018 memoir remains one of the best books I’ve read on the subject. Warm, smart and life-affirming, a must-read for anyone affected by dementia.

Wendy Mitchell's best-selling 2018 memoir Somebody I Used To Know

Wendy Mitchell’s best-selling 2018 memoir Somebody I Used To Know


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