Poll reveals that one-eighth of Americans over 50 show signs of junk food addiction
31 Jan 2023 --- A sizable percentage of older US consumers have an unhealthy relationship with highly processed foods, according to a new poll. The findings revealed that much higher rates of possible addiction to processed food are seen among older adults who are overweight or experiencing poor mental health or isolation.
Around 13% of people aged 50 to 80 showed signs of addiction to such foods and beverages in the past year, the U-M Poll revealed.
The percentage is much higher among women than men – especially women in their 50s and early 60s. Notably, it was also higher in older adults who say they are overweight, lonely, or in fair or poor physical or mental health.
Common indicators of addiction
The poll was undertaken 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 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,” he explains.
“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.”
Diagnosing food addiction issues
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 used to diagnose addiction-related problems with alcohol, tobacco and other addictive substances.
By these criteria, addiction to highly processed foods was seen in 17% of adults aged 50 to 64, and 8% of adults aged 65-80, 22% of women aged 50 to 64, and 18% of women aged 50 to 80 and 32% of women who say their physical health is fair or poor.
Food addiction was also observed in 17% of men who are overweight and 34% of women who are overweight. Notably, food addiction was also seen in 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 one in four (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 two to three 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 two to three times a week or more.
More understanding warranted?
Poll director Jeffrey Kullgren, an associate professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine and physician and researcher at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, says that clinicians need a better understanding of how food addiction and problematic eating intertwine with their patient’s physical and mental health, including chronic conditions such as 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 quit smoking or drinking.”
Edited by Elizabeth Green
To contact our editorial team please email us at email@example.com
Subscribe now to receive the latest news directly into your inbox.