Many Older Adults Are Addicted to Highly Processed Foods: Study

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Jan. 31, 2023 – Food addiction may be more common among older adults than addiction to alcohol or tobacco.

More than 1 in 8 older adults report signs of food addiction, saying highly processed foods cause problems in their lives on a weekly basis, according to a new study from the University of Michigan.

“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,” researcher Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, an associate professor in psychology at the school, said in a news 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.”

Researchers analyzed responses collected in July 2022 from 2,163 people ages 50 to 80 years old as part of the university’s National Poll on Healthy Aging. The study was published Monday.

Addiction to highly processed foods was twice as common among women, compared to men. People who were overweight, reported poor mental health, or who said they felt isolated were also more likely to meet the criteria for food addiction.

Researchers used the Yale Food Addiction Scale to determine whether respondents’ behavior met the definition of substance dependence set by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). 

People were asked to think about foods such as ice cream, candy, chocolates, starchy white bread or pasta, salty snacks, fatty meats like burgers or bacon, and sugary drinks. They then were asked how often statements such as the following applied to them:

  • “I had such strong urges to eat certain foods that I couldn’t think of anything else.”
  • “If I had emotional problems because I hadn’t eaten certain foods, I would eat them.”

Researchers said that older adults should be screened during regular medical checkups for food addiction so they can be referred for nutritional counseling, if needed.

“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,” said poll director Jeffrey Kullgren, MD.

Show Sources


University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation: “1 in 8 Americans over 50 show signs of food addiction, U-M poll finds,” “Yale Food Addiction Scale,” “National Poll On Healthy Aging.”

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