How Ultra-Processed Food Addiction Affects Health

by Ella

Dubai, UAE – Junk food can be as addictive as alcohol, tobacco, or gambling, according to a study spanning 36 countries and published in the British Medical Journal. Researchers from the US, Brazil, and Spain suggest that some “ultra-processed” foods should be taxed and labeled to reflect their addictive nature.

The analysis indicates that 14 percent of adults and 12 percent of children are addicted to these foods, leading to dangerous overeating. Clinical nutritionist Dr. Lina Shibib from Medcare Hospitals and Medical Centres highlights that the typical UAE diet could be causing long-lasting health damage.


“The prevalence of ultra-processed foods in the UAE diet exhibits variability, but a common trend involves elevated consumption levels,” says Dr. Shibib. “This heightened intake raises legitimate concerns about associated health risks, contributing to the growing rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases observed within the population.”


The Nature of Ultra-Processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods replace traditional ingredients with cheap, sometimes entirely synthetic substitutes. These industrially processed alternatives are designed and marketed to be addictive, according to Chris van Tulleken, an infectious diseases doctor at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London.


In his bestseller, Ultra-Processed People, van Tulleken writes: “Over the last 150 years, food has become … not food. We’ve started eating substances constructed from novel molecules and using processes never previously encountered in our evolutionary history.”


These foods include obvious culprits like soft drinks, chocolate, and potato crisps, as well as less obvious staples such as low-fat margarines, vitamin-fortified cereals, and packaged soups, which have long been promoted as healthy. Not only are these substances addictive, but they also lack nutritional value, meaning consumers often do not feel full, regardless of how much they eat.

Personal Struggles with Addiction

Jeffrey Zorn, 39, a former Muay Thai fighter and founder of Nourish Dubai, experienced severe addiction to ultra-processed foods while training in a remote Thai village. Consuming up to 7,000 calories daily from Gatorade, ice cream, sweets, canned coffee, and processed carbs, Zorn’s digestive and immune system suffered, leading to an autoimmune condition called weeping eczema.

“It’s a type of addiction that forms when your body is craving nutrition,” says Zorn. “This combination of processed foods does not exist in nature, which is why you can eat a bucket of popcorn and feel sick before you ever feel full.”

Upon returning to Dubai and being diagnosed with the painful skin condition, Zorn decided to go cold turkey to eliminate all unnatural substances from his diet. “Giving up ultra-processed foods was just as difficult as giving up smoking,” he says. “Food addictions are probably the most difficult to overcome.”

The Journey to Recovery

Zorn founded Nourish Dubai in 2015, a meal subscription plan that uses purely natural ingredients, inspired by his personal diet overhaul. “Getting through that initial blood sugar crash is difficult, but eventually that physical dependency wanes and you become much more rational,” he says. “I’d encourage everyone to educate themselves about what they’re putting in their body.”

The Mental Toll

Dr. Shibib points out that ultra-processed foods affect the brain, making addictions harder to overcome. “The impact of ultra-processed foods on the brain is notable, particularly concerning the activation of reward pathways that may lead to addictive behaviors,” she says.


The growing addiction to ultra-processed foods poses significant health risks, impacting both physical and mental well-being. As evidence mounts, experts urge individuals to become more aware of their dietary choices and consider the long-term effects of these addictive substances.



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