Saturday 7 December 2019

Junk food is not addictive - but it is extremely hard to resist

Aideen Sheehan

FOOD is not addictive but consumers are besieged by aggressively marketed, cheap junk.

Even 15pc of the baby food on sale in Ireland consists of unhealthy products such as chocolate pudding, a Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) conference on food addiction heard yesterday. However, international experts said food is not chemically addictive because it does not rewire the brain the way heroin or cocaine does.

Dr John Menzies of the University of Edinburgh said that food was not addictive because it didn't cause neurological changes in the brain to make users seek it out, although there was a subset of the population for whom overeating might be a behavioural rather than a substance addiction.

Prof Julian Mercer of the University of Aberdeen said it was unhelpful to classify food as addictive and give people the impression obesity was the food industry's fault and they could do nothing about overeating.

Most weight gain happened very slowly over many years and small adjustments in everyday life could tackle that, he said.

"Evidence that specific foods or ingredients are addictive in an analogous way to drugs of abuse, alcohol or nicotine is largely absent," he said.

"Eating addiction might be a more appropriate term to describe problematic relations with food, avoiding the implication that food contains addictive chemicals."

He criticised claims junk food was as addictive as heroin and said scientists must get more sensible messages out.

FSAI specialist Dr Mary Flynn said that consumers were "under siege" from high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt foods that were aggressively marketed to appeal to our natural preference for them.

Even when it came to babyfood, the FSAI had found that 15pc of those products on sale in Ireland were unsuitable, including "totally inappropriate" products like cheesecake, banoffee pie or lamb dinners with all the trimmings for six-month-olds.

FSAI research also showed healthy food was much more expensive with 100 calories worth of fruit and vegetables costing 45c, compared with 4c for the same amount of oil or fat, and 17c for treat foods - meaning low income families trying to stretch their money could be forced into unhealthy choices.

The stark reality was that by the age of 50 just 13pc of Irish men and 30pc of women were still a healthy weight, she said.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar said new healthy eating guidelines will be considered by his department's Special Action Group on Obesity next week.

"Studies now show two out of three Irish adults and one in four primary school children are overweight or obese. These disturbing statistics represent a major challenge," he said.

Irish Independent

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