When you’re feeling hungry, do you catch yourself continuously reaching for overly processed foods, like chips, cookies or frozen meals? According to a recent poll, struggling to break this habit can be a sign of food addiction, especially in older adults.
Data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging showed that 13% of adults aged 50 to 80 experienced food addiction in the past year. This accounts for things like intense cravings, failure to cut back on processed food intake, eating-related distress, and more.
13% of adults aged 50 to 80 experienced food addiction in the past year.
The poll, which was based at the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation and supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, showed that one in four older adults reported intense cravings at least once a week and became mentally fixated on processed foods to meet their craving. Similarly, 19% said they tried to cut these foods out of their diets two to three times a week and couldn’t.
According to News Medical, poll director Jeffrey Kullgren, MD, MPH, MS, said food addiction can contribute to mental health and chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.
…food addiction can contribute to mental health and chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.
“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,” Kullgren said.
Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, associate professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychology, echoed Kullgren’s stance, claiming it’s easiest to get hooked on foods that are highly processed.
“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,” she said. “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.”
…our brains respond as strongly to highly processed foods … as they do to tobacco, alcohol and other addictive substances
The University of Michigan reports that eating processed foods releases dopamine, which feels like a reward to the brain and helps people cope with negative emotions by giving them a sense of pleasure. You can even experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to suddenly eliminate these foods from your diet.
Data showed this addiction to unhealthy food is particularly high in women. In total, 32% of women who reported fair or poor physical health met the criteria for food addiction, but only 14% of men with the same physical health status qualified. Similarly, 45% of women who reported fair or poor mental health were classified as being addicted to overly processed foods, but only 23% of men with the same mental health status met the criteria.
Some studies have associated overly processed food consumption to cognitive decline. Research proves that too much sugar and fat can increase inflammation, which is bad for the brain. There’s also a link between the microorganisms that live in the digestive tract and the production of neurotransmitters, which play an important role in brain function.
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According to the National Poll on Healthy Aging, it’s important to share your concerns about possible food addictions with your provider.
“Screening for an addiction to highly processed food at health care visits … may help to identify older adults who could benefit from additional resources, such as those to address higher levels of physical and mental health care needs,” the organization wrote. “Older adults identified as having an addiction to highly processed food or who express concerns about symptoms may benefit from connections to programs that offer nutrition education or provide access to healthy, affordable foods.”