Processed Food Is Not A Drug

Why doughnuts are not nearly as much of a problem as cigarettes

Gideon M-K; Health Nerd


Pictured: Not as bad for you as methamphetamine. Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

Junk food has become the most reviled demon of the 21st century. Not just a fast and easy way to cram calories into your body, people now consider doughnuts, pizza, and other treats to be as bad for you as smoking and drugs. There are headlines regularly arguing that processed food is as addictive as illegal narcotics, as dangerous as cigarettes, and worse for society than virtually any other issue around.

It’s a terrifying time to sneak a few cookies at work.

Pictured: Eeeeeevil, apparently. Photo by Lindsey Savage on Unsplash

However, the reality of these foods is usually far more boring than the headlines suggest. While it’s definitely true that we should all eat less junk food — something that’s been advised since at least the 1970s — it’s unlikely that McDonald’s fries are coming for your family any time soon.

Yes, junk food is bad for you, but it’s also a much more complicated issue than smoking.


The first point that’s often made in these arguments is the idea that junk food — often defined as ultra-processed, or energy-dense and nutrient-poor in research papers — is addictive. You see headlines about this all the time, because the idea that our supermarket shelves are filled with addictive substances makes a really good news story.

Pictured: Heroin, basically. Photo by Mustafa Bashari on Unsplash

However, it might surprise you to hear that the question of whether certain foods are addictive is hotly debated, and there’s quite a bit of discussion about whether food addiction is even a real thing. This is complex because unlike other addictive substances there’s no one food that people are addicted to — there’s no nicotine, heroin, cocaine, etc. Instead, people are said to be ‘addicted’ to broad categories of food, usually defined either by their calorie/nutrient content or how much they’ve been processed.