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Natural Awakenings Tucson

Processed Food Addiction

Dec 31, 2023 09:00AM ● By Sheila Shea
Food addiction can be defined as the compulsive consumption of food despite a lack of hunger or a desire to stop eating. Processed food addiction (PFA) is a disease that disrupts mental, emotional, behavioral and physical well-being.

The 11 diagnostic criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Ed (DSM 5) for substance-related addiction disorders include: unintended use, failure to cut back, time spent, cravings, failure to fulfill roles, interpersonal problems, activities given up, physically hazardous use, use in spite of consequences, tolerance and withdrawal.

The most widely used measure of an ultra processed food (UPF) was developed in 2009 by researchers in Brazil. The NOVA food classification system assigns food and beverages to one of four groups:
1. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, milk and meat.
2. Processed culinary ingredients, including white sugar, butter and oils derived from seeds, nuts and fruits.
3. Processed foods, such as tomato paste, bacon, canned tuna and wine.
4. Ultra processed foods, such as soda, ice cream, breakfast cereal and prepackaged meals.
The book Processed Food Addiction: Foundations, Assessment, and Recovery proposes a new approach of treating overeating as an addiction to processed foods, that could provide an answer to the epidemic of obesity and the metabolic syndrome.
Damage Incurred by Processed Food
The pandemics of obesity and metabolic syndrome continue to spread globally. The prevalence of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that occurs together, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, has been estimated at 93 percent of the public. The metabolic syndrome has grown to include central obesity (abdominal visceral fat), insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, hypertension, prothrombotic state, proinflammatory state, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, reproductive disorders, cancer and cognitive decline.

The addictive changes to the brain associated with both drug and processed food use may help clarify why overeaters cannot control their consumption of processed food products, just as drug addicts have lost control over drug use.

Neuroimaging such as structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (s/fMRI) and positron tomography (PET) demonstrate specific neurological changes that are common to both drug abuse and overeating.

UPFs make up three quarters of the U.S. food supply and about 60 percent of Americans’ daily caloric intake. A growing number of studies link them to poor brain health, including an increased risk of dementia, depression and anxiety.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that from 1999 to 2018, highly processed foods accounted for the majority of energy intake in those aged 2 through 19 years. Individuals with the highest rates of UPF consumption reported higher levels of confusion, slowed thinking, unwanted or obsessive thoughts, irritability and feelings of sadness. Consumption of highly processed foods may also disrupt the gut microbiome.

Helpful Solutions and Considerations
Dr. Guido Gerardi Lavin, a pediatrician and former president of the Senate, led the nation of Chile in May 2012 to become the first nation to ban junk food marketing to children. Real food prevents metabolic syndrome. Processed food causes metabolic syndrome. The goal is to promote the availability and consumption of real food—the meat, the dairy, the produce.

In “The Case for Taste Bud Rehab”, published by U.S. News in 2013, Dr. David Katz, MD, writes, “As you trade up your choices and cut out superfluous sugar, salt, trans fat and food chemicals, you also put your taste buds through rehab. Shifting steadily to more wholesome foods means reducing the time taste buds spend each day bathing in sugar, salt and food chemicals. Greater taste sensitivity happens as a result. When people prefer better food, eating well is not a chore, it’s a preference. I believe we can all get there from here.”

According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), sugary drink sales in Philadelphia have dropped by 38 percent since the city adopted a tax.
Author of The Real Meal Revolution, Tim Noakes, MD, PhD, states, “In my opinion, it’s the sugar/processed food addiction. In other words, eating foods that are not satiating. To prevent obesity/type 2 diabetes one has to find the foods that are satiating and allow one to eat infrequently—i.e., intermittent fasting.”

Vera Tarman, MD, an addictions doctor, wrote her book Food Junkies as a guide to cope with compulsive overeating problems by drawing on patients’ stories of recovery. The book contains the latest research on food addiction as well as practical recovery strategies for people facing the complicated challenges of comfort overeating, eating disorders and food addictions.
Addiction requires clients to learn a new way of preparing food as they wean themselves off of convenience foods. Patience and pacing are offered as keys to success in managing recovery from the severe mental illness that is food addiction.

Sheila Shea, MA is Director of Intestinal Health Institute, in Tucson. She has her MA in Education from Stanford University. In 1977, she studied Colon Hydrotherapy and began her 46-year practice. Shea is a Certified Gut and Psychology and Physiology Syndrome Practitioner and provides colon hydrotherapy and gut nutritional counseling for her clients. Connect at 520-325-9686, [email protected] or

Sheila Shea


Sheila Shea MA is Board Certified with 41 years of colon hydrotherapy experience. The Intestinal Health Institute offers intestinal nutritional support and detoxification protocols to a... Read More »