Whether you realize it or not, it’s likely that most of your calorie intake may be coming from highly processed foods.
Nearly 60% of the calories that make up a typical American diet come from ultra-processed foods like fries and cookies, per data from a 2017 study published in the journal Population Health Metrics.
And not only are those foods bad for your health, but they’re also addictive, according to Joan Ifland, an expert on processed food addiction and founder of The Food Addiction Reset.
“When you concentrate [foods], when you put them into a state where they can be absorbed very quickly, then they become addictive,” says Ifland.
“Processed foods are foods that don’t look like they looked when they were first harvested,” she says. This includes foods that are made from “powdering, liquifying, making into a syrup or a crystal, removing the fiber and grounding into a flour heating to such a high temperature that the nutrients are vaporized.”
This chart shows simple swaps for popular processed foods like doughnuts and pizza
7 highly processed foods you can replace with healthier alternatives
Why are processed foods addictive?
Endorphins are released when eating processed foods, and it causes a “high” experience that inevitably leads to a crash, according to Ifland. “And in the crash, you become desperate to get out of the crash,” she says, which prompts you to eat more processed foods.
Non-processed foods give you an elevated lift, due to an endorphin release, too; it just doesn’t end in a severe crash, she notes.
When you stop eating processed foods, “you get better emotional control because you don’t have all of that adrenaline and cortisol in your bloodstream. You get better digestion,” says Ifland.
“We see all kinds of things go into remission, and it’s because cells throughout the body are starting to work again.”