ANN ARBOR, Mich. — If you think junk food is just something younger people eat, think again. A new poll by researchers at the University of Michigan finds that one in eight adults over 50 have such an unhealthy relationship with ultra-processed junk foods that it qualifies as a food addiction. This includes having extreme craving for unhealthy food and going through withdrawal when they don’t have it.
“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 Michigan psychologist Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D., in a university release. “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.”
Gearhardt and the team explored this by using a set of 13 questions called the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which measures whether and how often older adults experienced notable signs of addiction in their relationship with highly processed foods like desserts, salty snacks, sugary drinks, and fast food. The indicators include feelings of intense cravings, an inability to limit intake, and withdrawal signs.
Older women more prone to junk food addiction
In order for participants to meet the criteria of an addiction, the older adults had to report experiencing at least two of 11 symptoms in addition to significant eating-related distress or life problems several times per week. Results show that 17 percent of adults between the ages of 50 to 64 and eight percent of those between 65 and 80 qualify as having an addiction to highly processed foods. Interestingly, this figure was even higher among women, with 18 percent of women between the ages of 50 and 80 meeting the criteria for food addiction. The most commonly reported symptom was intensive cravings, with one in four stating that they had them at least once a week.
The team also discovered that those who struggled mentally or in other areas tended to lean more toward addiction to these foods as well. Specifically, the percentages of those who classified as addicted and rated their mental health as fair or poor were three times higher than those who rated their mental health as excellent, very good, or good.
“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 Jeffrey Kullgren, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., an associate professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine and director of the national poll. “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.”