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Many older Americans show signs of food addiction

Whether you call them comfort foods or junk foods, a new poll shows that many older Americans have an unhealthy relationship with them. According to the National Poll on Healthy Aging, 13 percent of people aged 50 to 80 showed signs of addiction to junk foods and unhealthy beverages.

The survey revealed that food addiction is more prevalent among women in their 50s and early 60s. It was also higher in older adults who say they are overweight, lonely, or have poorer physical or mental health.

The poll is based at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation where psychologist Ashley Gearhardt used 13 questions to measure how older adults experienced food addiction. The addiction indicators include cravings, an inability to cut down on intake, and signs of withdrawal.

Gearhardt suggests that these standard questions be asked by doctors’ to help patients with addictive eating habits through referrals to nutrition programs that address addictive eating.

“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,” said 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 the addiction criteria, adults had to report at least two of 11 symptoms and significant eating-related distress or life problems multiple times a week. These criteria are also used to diagnose addiction-related problems with alcohol and tobacco.

Based on these criteria, addiction to highly processed foods was seen in:

  • 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 and 14% of men who say their physical health is fair or poor – more than twice as those who say their physical health is excellent, very good or good
  • 45% of women and 23% of men who say their mental health is fair or poor – three times as high as those who say their mental health is excellent, very good or good
  • 17% of men and 34% of women who self-report they are overweight
  • 51% of women who say they often feel isolated and 26% of men who say the same

The most commonly reported symptom was intense cravings. Almost 1 in 4 (24%) said that at least once a week they had such a strong food craving that they couldn’t think of anything else. 

In addition, 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. Furthermore, 12% percent reported that their eating behavior caused them distress 2 to 3 times a week or more.

“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,” said poll director Dr. Jeffrey Kullgren.

Food cravings and behaviors are often genetic, and some people may need more help than others. 

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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