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13% of older adults show signs of food addiction

January 31, 2023

2 min read

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One in eight adults aged 50 to 80 years demonstrated signs of addiction to highly processed foods over the past year, a survey by the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging found.

“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,” Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, MPhil, MS, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, said in a press 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.”

Data derived from: Addiction to highly processed food among older adults. Published Jan. 30, 2023. Accessed Jan. 30, 2023.

Gearhardt and colleagues used a questionnaire consisting of 13 questions to determine the prevalence of food addiction amongst older adults. The 2,163 participants had to demonstrate two of 11 symptoms of addiction to highly processed foods, as well as report eating-related distress or life problems multiple times a week, to classify as having food addiction.

In addition to the 13% of respondents who met the criteria for food addiction, Gearhardt and colleagues found that 44% indicated at least one symptom.

Women were more likely to experience food addiction compared with men (18% vs. 8%). Respondents aged 50 to 64 years were also more likely to have food addiction compared with those aged 65 to 80 years (17% vs. 8%), with women aged 50 to 64 years being the most likely to meet the criteria (22%).

Among the most common food addiction symptoms seen were:

  • intense cravings at least once a week (24%);
  • an inability to cut down on intake despite a desire to do so at least two-to-three times a week (19%); and
  • signs of withdrawal at least once a week (17%).

Mental health was also found to be a factor. Those who rated their mental health as fair or poor were three times more likely to meet food addiction criteria than those who rated their mental health as good, very good or excellent.

Additionally, older adults who reported often feeling isolated were more likely to have food addiction symptoms than those who rarely felt isolated. This was more notable in women (32%) compared with men (14%).

Among those who reported being overweight, 17% of men and 32% of women met the criteria for food addiction, compared with 1% of men and 4% of women who reported normal weight.

Gearhardt and colleagues noted that one reason highly processed foods are addictive is because they can initiate releases of dopamine in the brain’s reward system at levels “comparable to nicotine and alcohol.”

“Many people report eating highly processed foods not only for the calories they provide, but also to experience pleasure and cope with negative emotions,” they wrote. “Cravings for highly processed foods can also be intense and challenging to resist, and people may experience withdrawal-like symptoms when they try to reduce the amount they consume.”

They added that the addictive nature makes it difficult for older adults to stop the consumption of these products, “even if they really want to eat more nutritious foods and improve their health.”

Gearhardt and colleagues concluded that screening for food addiction symptoms at health care visits could help to identify older adults who would benefit from further resources, like those that address mental health and physical needs.

“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,” they wrote.