About 13 percent of older people in the U.S. show signs of addiction to highly processed foods and drinks, according to a national poll on healthy aging conducted by the University of Michigan, involving those aged 50 to 80. Highly processed foods include sweetened beverages, potato chips, and fast food, the poll noted.
To meet the criteria for addiction, respondents needed to have two or more symptoms out of 11 in the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Those symptoms include intense cravings, inability to cut down on consumption despite a desire to do so, feelings of distress about food choices, and signs of withdrawal when these foods were replaced by healthier options.
Women were more than twice as likely as men to meet criteria for addiction, and those who reported fair or poor physical health were also much more likely to meet the criteria for addiction. Respondents who reported fair or poor mental health were at least three times more likely to meet the criteria.
More From Bicycling
Using measures like these may be helpful for identifying people who could benefit from nutrition counseling or programs that address addictive eating, according to Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D., a University of Michigan psychologist who led the research.
“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,” she told Bicycling. “Just as with smoking and 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 to food.”
What defines a food addiction?
One caveat to the recent findings is that the designation of food addiction for ultra-processed food is actually quite controversial in the world of eating disorder treatment and among some research professionals, according to Anne Marie O’Melia, M.D., chief clinical and medical officer at Eating Recovery Center in Denver. However, she told Bicycling, people don’t seem to develop addictions to fresh vegetables.
“Sometimes, people describe feeling unable to control their intake of a food like pizza, or candy, so we speculate that for some people, eating a lot of highly processed, highly palatable food creates a change in the same reward pathways in the brain as drug addiction,” she said. “With these individuals, we see fewer dopamine receptors and less activity in the inhibitory control centers of the brain.”
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of reward, and with fewer receptors, it can take more processed food to trigger that response. When that’s paired with less inhibition, O’Melia said it can lead to a loss of control around eating. She added that this isn’t just about individual behavior, however.
“We live in a culture that glorifies thinness, idealizes self-control, and encourages dietary restraint, even as we have increasingly ready access to inexpensive, highly palatable food,” she said. “This culture of dieting causes a lot of harm by promoting disordered eating for those with that vulnerability. We need to take the blame away from people suffering from eating control issues. They are suffering physically and emotionally, and it’s not helpful to reinforce the prevailing cultural message that they could easily fix the issue if they just showed more self-control.”
Although the researchers behind the current food addiction poll didn’t mention lack of access to fresh foods as a factor, previous research on food addiction has suggested there’s a link. For example, a 2022 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that women experiencing food insecurity had higher self-reported rates of compulsive eating and unsuccessful attempts to cut down on highly processed food. This also demonstrates why it’s so important not to place blame on the individual, as their circumstances can also play a role.
How do you address food addiction?
Treatment that focuses on weight as the harbinger of health and recovery does not work, O’Melia said. Instead, if you feel that you’re challenged by food addiction or disordered eating, talk with a professional who can do a comprehensive individual assessment and develop a plan that takes medical and psychiatric factors into account.
Beneficial treatment should also start with exploring the difference between food addiction, overeating, emotional eating, trauma, impulse control issues, anxiety, and mood disorder, O’Melia added. Although all of these might involve similar symptoms, it’s important to understand their nuances. An expert can help with that.
Also, when creating a plan, O’Melia suggested not eliminating specific foods, but instead to develop skills for being mindful about food intake.
“Understanding how foods are impacting your motivation, impulse control, and physiology can be empowering,” said O’Melia. “Unlike alcohol, cocaine, or nicotine, food is required to live, so you can’t treat it the same as a drug addiction. Abstinence from food isn’t an option. Instead, incorporating variety into a plan, finding enjoyment in food and reinforcing social connections at meals is a much better strategy.”
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food.