Young people are having less sex, drinking less alcohol, and using fewer recreational drugs, according to British and American national surveys.
What has caused the surprising drop in these culturally ingrained forms of teenage rebellion?
Most people are pointing to social media as the culprit and suggesting that young people are replacing the dopamine hit they once got from sex, drugs, and booze with social media. But ultra-processed foods might be the true culprits.
Everybody’s screen time has increased since smartphones became mainstream in 2007, when the iPhone was invented. This trend is especially noticeable among teenagers, whose screen use increased by 17% between 2019 and 2021, according to a survey by Common Sense Media.
While screen time has gone up, sexual activity has been trending downwards accordingly. The proportion of adolescents reportedly having no sex increased by 15% in young men and 25% in young women between 2009 and 2018. Sex and screens are linked by the fact that they both release dopamine. But what is dopamine, and why does it matter, anyway?
What’s the deal with dopamine?
Dopamine is a chemical that creates that feel-good sensation teenagers are predisposed to seek out. In the current cultural climate, there is less of an incentive for young people to seek pleasure in the same ways they would have done pre-phones. The rush of dopamine you get when you refresh TikTok or Instagram comes with a fraction of the effort you need to find drugs, alcohol, or someone to have sex with.
It would be remiss to assume that screens are solely to blame for the unexpectedly conservative behavior of today’s teenagers. Screens are just one part of a bigger puzzle. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are a larger piece of the jigsaw that we need to put together to explain this baffling trend of teenage conservatism.
What are UPFs?
UPFs are foods or drinks that have been transformed by industrial processes using synthetic additives. That’s a lot of jargon, but in practice, think of brightly packaged products that don’t resemble their original ingredients. Chips, sweets, and even ‘healthy’ products like artificially sweetened protein or cereal bars all come under this umbrella.
UPFs play a greater role in lowering sexual activity and substance use rates than social media does
There isn’t much evidence online linking teenagers’ increased consumption of UPFs to their decreasing sexual activity and substance use. The consensus seems to be that social media is to blame. While this is partially true, the standard Western diet most young people are eating plays a much larger role than social media does.
Eating UPFs releases dopamine in your brain, just like when you refresh social media. However, it seems intuitive that UPFs play a larger role in this trend of decreasing sex and substance use than social media. Food, unlike Instagram, is a survival need. As Dr. Glenn Livingston, psychologist and author of the book Never Binge Again, confirmed:
“We have evolved to find nutrients directly, we didn’t evolve to look at screens. The screens are a secondary reinforcer… not a primary reinforcer like food. So I would think screens are pretty powerful, but not as powerful as processed foods.”
When I asked Dr. Livingston what he thought about the relationship between declining sexual activity and substance use and the increasing consumption of UPFs among young people, he said:
“I can tell you for certain that the more processed foods you eat, the less interesting drugs, sex, and alcohol are probably going to seem. The thing about processed foods is that they’re always available, as opposed to a relationship or a sexual partner. You can always get a bag of chips.”
Are UPFs really that bad?
But why does this matter, anyway? So what if teenagers are using food instead of sex and substances to feel good? Surely UPFs have less potential for harm? True, UPFs are undoubtedly less bad than cocaine. However, they’re worse than most people realize. Importantly, their effects aren’t widely understood despite the fact that UPFs make up over 50% of the calories we consume in the UK.
To understand the negative effects UPFs have, we first have to understand the gut microbiome. This is the collection of microorganisms that live in your digestive tract. Many microbiome scientists consider the gut microbiome to be an organ. But this is still up for debate in the wider scientific community.
In an interview with Steven Bartlett, epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector says that you can keep your gut microbiome healthy by eating
“up to thirty different types of plant a week [so] you maximize your diversity of species in your gut…[and] cut out ultra processed chemicals, because all the groups in the population which have the best gut microbes, don’t eat ultra processed foods”.
Although it might sound nearly impossible to eat that many fruits and vegetables, Professor Spector clarified that:
“A plant is a nut, a seed, it’s not just kale. It’s a spice, and things like coffee are a plant, because it comes from a fermented bean.”
Although this might sound like a lot of effort, there isn’t a better alternative. The current Western dietary trends aren’t working. Calorie counting, for example, is pretty ineffective. It turns out dietary health isn’t a numbers game. Here, Dr. Spector shows how twins eating identical calories from different quality food were affected in a two-week study.
UPFs and mental health
So, UPFs aren’t great for your gut health, and a diverse range of plants is. But why is bad gut health such a big deal, anyway? It turns out the link between our gut and brain health is much more important than scientists previously thought. Professor Spector says that:
“depression and anxiety are intricately linked to the quality of your gut microbes [because they] pump out chemicals all the time that are vital for our body. Thousands of different chemicals are pumped out every minute… The microbes can produce chemicals that affect the brain and will make the difference between you being happy or sad. We know that they’re vital in depression”.
This can all sound pretty daunting, but the takeaway is relatively clear. If we want to be happier, eating a diverse range of plants and trying to cut down on UPFs seems like a good place to start. But how do we recognize UPFs when we go food shopping?
What do UPFs look like?
As a general guide, Professor Spector says
“The number of ingredients is another pretty good sign. Once you get over ten, particularly if there’s lots you’ve never heard of or you wouldn’t find in your kitchen, you should also be wary that that is a UPF.”
Another warning sign is anything labeled ‘low calorie’ or ‘low fat’ because that means manufacturers “had to add in lots of artificial sweeteners… Low in fat means they’ve replaced the natural fat with something else that’s cheaper”.
Now that we know what to do and why, the solution seems theoretically simple. But there are a couple of barriers to success here.
What’s getting in the way?
Screens and processed foods are more accessible and acceptable in society than sex, alcohol and recreational drugs have ever been. This is because nearly the entire Western population is addicted to UPFs and their phones, regardless of their age.
It makes sense for parents to discourage their teenagers from doing drugs. They’d probably have less luck trying to discourage them from eating UPFs and scrolling on social media, when that’s exactly what they also do. (Here are some tips for cutting down your screen time, if you’re interested.)
On top of this, it’s important to consider the vicious cycle which UPFs create. They disrupt the health of the gut microbiome, which worsens depression and anxiety. Yet, they also provide short-term relief from these issues through the rush of dopamine they provide when you first eat them. So, people understandably become trapped in an addictive cycle of low mood, which they alleviate by using the foods that caused it in the first place. The bottom line is that UPFs are hard for everyone. Below, Dr. Xand van Tulleken talks about the struggles he experienced following a processed food diet for a month.
Where does this leave us?
The conclusion here doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. If we can start to eat with an awareness of the effects food has on our minds and with the mindset of expanding rather than restricting our diets to include a diverse range of whole food, we’re a lot closer to finding happiness in a modern world that isn’t always set up for our success.