Older Americans Addicted to Junk Food

Author: Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan
Published: 2023/01/30
Peer-Reviewed: N/A
Contents: Summary - Main - Related Publications

Synopsis: Much higher percentages of possible addiction to processed food are seen among older American adults who are overweight, experiencing poor mental health, or isolation. About 13% of people aged 50 to 80 showed signs of addiction to such foods and beverages in the past year, the new data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging suggest. The word addiction may seem strong when it comes to food. Still, research has shown that our brains respond as strongly to highly processed foods, significantly those highest in sugar, simple starches, and fat, as they do to tobacco, alcohol, and other addictive substances.

Food Addiction

Food provides needed sustenance and adds a gratification factor through various tastes, smells, textures, etc. However, for many individuals, food addiction can become as serious as drugs are to a substance abuser. For men and women suffering from an addiction to food, highly palatable foods (often rich in fat, sugar, and salt) trigger chemical reactions in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction. Food addicts become dependent upon the "good" feelings from consuming certain foods, which often perpetuates a continued need to eat, even when not hungry.

With the obesity epidemic attributed mainly to overeating, much research has been aimed at understanding the psychological causes of overeating and using this knowledge to develop targeted interventions. Because this addictive behavior is not biological, one cannot create a trait that codes for an eating disorder. Professionals address this by providing behavior therapy and asking a series of questions called the YFAS (Yale Food Addiction Scale) questionnaire, diagnostic criteria of substance dependence.

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Main Digest

Whether you call them comfort foods, highly processed foods, junk foods, empty calories, or just some of Americans' favorite foods and drinks, a sizable percentage of older Americans have an unhealthy relationship with them, according to a new poll. What Does it Take to Burn off Calories If I Eat or Drink a Food Item?

About 13% of people aged 50 to 80 showed signs of addiction to such foods and beverages in the past year, the new data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging suggest.

The percentage is much higher among women than men - especially women in their 50s and early 60s. It was also higher in older adults who say they are overweight, lonely, or in fair or poor physical or mental health.

The poll is based at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M's academic medical center.

Continued below image.
The above chart reads Addiction to highly processed foods among adults aged 50-80. 13% met the criteria for highly processed food addiction in the past year. 44% indicated one or more symptoms of addiction to highly processed food. From Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, National Poll On Healthy Aging, University of Michigan. January/February 2023 Report: Addiction to Highly Processed Food Among Older Adults.
The above chart reads Addiction to highly processed foods among adults aged 50-80. 13% met the criteria for highly processed food addiction in the past year. 44% indicated one or more symptoms of addiction to highly processed food. From Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, National Poll On Healthy Aging, University of Michigan. January/February 2023 Report: Addiction to Highly Processed Food Among Older Adults.
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The poll team and U-M psychologist Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D., used a set of 13 questions to measure whether and how often older adults experienced the core indicators of addiction in their relationship with highly processed foods such as sweets, salty snacks, sugary drinks, and fast food. These addiction indicators include intense cravings, an inability to reduce intake, and signs of withdrawal.

Based on their findings, Gearhardt suggests that the same standard questions should become part of screening at doctors' offices. This could help identify older adults with addictive eating habits who could benefit from referrals to nutrition counseling or programs that help people address addictive eating or get affordable access to healthier foods.

Gearhardt, an associate professor in the U-M Department of Psychology and member of IHPI, co-developed the standardized questionnaire used in the poll, called the Yale Food Addiction Scale.

"The word addiction may seem strong when it comes to food, but research has shown that our brains respond as strongly to highly processed foods, especially those highest in sugar, simple starches, and fat, as they do to tobacco, alcohol and other addictive substances," says Gearhardt.

"Just as with smoking or drinking, we need to identify and reach out to those who have entered unhealthy patterns of use and support them in developing a healthier relationship with food."

To meet the criteria for an addiction to highly processed food on the scale used in the poll, older adults had to report experiencing at least two of 11 symptoms of addiction in their intake of highly processed food, as well as report significant eating-related distress or life problems multiple times a week. These are the same criteria to diagnose addiction-related problems with alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive substances.

By these criteria, addiction to highly processed foods was seen in

The most commonly reported symptom of addiction to highly processed foods in older adults was intense cravings. Almost 1 in 4 (24%) said that at least once a week, they had such a strong urge to eat a highly processed food that they couldn't think of anything else. And 19% said that at least 2 to 3 times a week, they had tried and failed to cut down on, or stop eating, these kinds of foods.

Twelve percent said that their eating behavior caused them a lot of distress 2 to 3 times a week or more.

"Clinicians need a better understanding of how food addiction and problematic eating intertwines with their patient's physical and mental health, including chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer," says poll director Jeffrey Kullgren, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., an associate professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine and physician and researcher at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System. "We need to understand that cravings and behaviors around food are rooted in brain chemistry and heredity and that some people may need additional help just as they would to quit smoking or drinking."

The poll report is based on findings from a nationally representative survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for IHPI and administered online and via phone in July 2022 among 2,163 adults aged 50 to 80. The sample was subsequently weighted to reflect the U.S. population.

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This quality-reviewed publication pertaining to our Dieting and Diet Plans section was selected for circulation by the editors of Disabled World due to its likely interest to our disability community readers. Though the content may have been edited for style, clarity, or length, the article "Older Americans Addicted to Junk Food" was originally written by Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan, and submitted for publishing on 2023/01/30. Should you require further information or clarification, Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan can be contacted at the umich.edu website. Disabled World makes no warranties or representations in connection therewith.

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