If you’re over 50 and struggling to maintain a healthy weight, a new study suggests an unhealthy relationship with certain food could be a contributing factor.
Researchers at the University of Michigan (UM) found that 13% of people aged 50 to 80 showed signs of addiction to high-calorie foods and beverages in the last 12 months. The data were gathered by the National Poll on Healthy Aging.
The researchers found that women struggle with food addiction more than men. The percentage was highest among women in their 50s and early 60s. It was also higher in older adults who say they are overweight, lonely, or in fair or poor physical or mental health.
The pollsters, supported by UM Medicine and AARP, asked 13 questions to measure whether, and how often older adults experienced the signs of addiction. In terms of food, the questions asked about the consumption of highly processed foods such as sweets, salty snacks, sugary drinks, and fast food.
But is it really an addiction?
Is “addiction” too strong of a word? The researchers set some pretty high parameters. They focused on subjects’ intense cravings, an inability to cut down on intake, and signs of withdrawal.
“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 U-M psychologist Dr. Ashley 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.”
In order to be classified as addicted to highly processed food, subjects had to report experiencing at least two of 11 symptoms of addiction when it comes to processed food. By these criteria, addiction to highly processed foods was seen in:
17% of adults aged 50 to 64, and 8% of adults aged 65-80
22% of women aged 50 to 64 and 18% of women aged 50 to 80
32% of women who say their physical health is fair or poor, and 14% of men who say the same – more than twice as high as the percentages among those who say their physical health is excellent, very good or good
45% of women who say their mental health is fair or poor, and 23% of men who say the same – three times as high as the percentages among those who say their mental health is excellent, very good or good
17% of men who self-report they are overweight, compared with 1% of men who indicate they’re around the right weight
34% of women who self-report they are overweight, compared with 4% who indicate they’re around the right weight
51% of women who say they often feel isolated from others, and 26% of men who say the same – compared with 8% of women
The most commonly reported symptom of addiction to highly processed foods was intense cravings, on the magnitude of smokers and those addicted to alcohol. Gephardt says questions about food cravings should become part of regular health screening at doctors’ offices.