1 in 8 Americans over 50 may have a food addiction to processed food – especially amongst older adults who are overweight or experiencing poor mental health or isolation
Please note: This article discusses eating disorders, addiction and mental illness.
The U.S.A is known for its ‘junk food’, and now, according to a poll by the University of Michigan, the older population’s dependency is increasing on these highly processed foods.
What is addictive eating?
Eating Disorder Hope defines food addiction or addictive eating as ‘A constant obsession with what to eat, when to eat, and how to obtain more food; overeating behaviors; hiding or hoarding foods, secretive behaviors, and inability to stop overeating or continued eating’.
And it turns out that a sizeable percentage of older Americans have an unhealthy relationship with, specifically, highly processed foods. These kinds of junk foods are referred to as ’empty calories’ because the food does not contain proper nutrients.
It comes as no surprise that many Americans’ favourite foods and drinks are extremely unhealthy, fattening and addictive. This includes burgers, fries, doughnuts and fizzy drinks.
In fact, 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.
More women show signs of addiction than men
The percentage of Americans addicted to fast food is much higher among women than men – especially women in their 50s and early 60s.
Adults who reported being overweight, lonely or in fair or poor physical or mental health were also more likely to experience addiction than those who were not.
How was the food poll conducted?
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.
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 set of standard questions should become part of screening at doctors’ offices. This could help combat food addiction in older adults by identifying the problem earlier on. Patients could then be referred to nutrition counselling 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 be considered ‘addicted’ 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. In addition, they had to report significant eating-related distress or life problems multiple times a week. These are the same criteria used to diagnose addiction-related problems with alcohol, tobacco and other addictive substances.
Where was an addiction to highly processed foods found?
- 17% of adults age 50 to 64, and 8% of adults age 65-80
- 22% of women age 50 to 64 and 18% of women age 50 to 80
- 32% of women who say their physical health is fair or poor, and 14% of men who say the same – more than twice as high as the percentages among those who say their physical health is excellent, very good or good
- 45% of women who say their mental health is fair or poor, and 23% of men who say the same – three times as high as the percentages among those who say their mental health is excellent, very good or good
- 17% of men who self-report they are overweight, compared with 1% of men who indicate they’re around the right weight
- 34% of women who self-report they are overweight, compared with 4% who indicate they’re around the right weight
- 51% of women who say they often feel isolated from others, and 26% of men who say the same – compared with 8% of women and 4% of men who say they rarely feel isolated
- 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
12% said their eating behaviour caused them significant distress 2 to 3 times per week
As many as 12% of those surveyed claimed that their food issues cause them to experience severe distress 2 to 3 times a week or more.
‘We need to understand that cravings and behaviors around food are rooted in brain chemistry and heredity’
“Clinicians need a better understanding of how food addiction and problematic eating intertwines with their patients’ 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.”
If any of the topics or issues discussed affect you in any way, please seek support from some of the helplines below:
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