Eating too many sugary treats or salty snacks may sound like something you’d grow out of, but a significant portion of adults over 50 say they can’t say no to highly processed foods, according to a study published Monday by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.
According to the study, about 1 in 8 adults over the age of 50 showed signs of food addiction.
The researchers looked at the responses of more than 2,000 adults ages 50 to 80 who completed the university’s National Poll on Healthy Aging. More women than men met the criteria for the definition of addiction in the poll. Those who said they were overweight, lonely, or in fair to poor physical or mental health were also more likely than others to meet the addiction criteria.
The survey focused on highly processed foods — sweets, starchy foods like white bread, salty snacks, fatty foods and sugary drinks — but also asked participants to consider foods they’ve struggled with over the past 12 months.
“The ability of these foods to elicit key classic signs of addiction is similar to what we’re seeing with alcohol and tobacco in this older population,” said Ashley Gearhardt, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann. . gazebo. “We think this is also true for younger populations.”
Gearhardt and her team used questions from the Yale Food Addiction Scale to measure whether older adults experienced core indicators of addiction. Among the symptoms people checked most often were:
- I had such a strong urge to eat certain foods that I couldn’t think about anything else (24% said this happened once a week).
- I have tried cutting back or cutting out certain foods (19% said this happened two to three times a week).
- If I had emotional problems because I hadn’t eaten certain foods, I did eat them (17%, once a week).
- Eating the same amount of food did not give me as much pleasure as I used to (13%, two to three times a week).
- My friends and family were concerned about how much I ate too much (12%, once a month).
- My eating behavior bothered me a lot (12%, two to three times a week).
- I had significant problems in my life because of eating and eating (9%, two to three times a week).
Gearhardt was a member of the group that came up with the Yale Food Addiction Scale. The scale takes the same criteria used to diagnose addictions and applies them to highly processed foods, she said.
Gearhardt suspects that ultra-processed foods, which are high in fats, sugar and salt, tap into the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine, the same signaling chemical that makes people feel pleasure when they get enough food, have sex or use certain drugs.
Another insidious part of these foods, she said, is that companies are removing fiber and water, making it easier for people to consume large amounts without ever feeling full.
“When you feel full, there are hormones in the gut that blunt the dopamine system,” Gearhardt added. “These foods don’t seem to signal satiety, so there’s no dampening of the dopamine system.”
“People feel really conflicted and struggling with their relationship with these highly processed foods,” Gearhardt said. “Many are unaware of how powerful these foods are.”
“The big thing with ultra-processed foods is the realization that once you’ve eaten one, you may not be able to stop and you may have to keep eating more,” says Dr. Vijaya Surampudi, an assistant professor of medicine at the Center for Human Nutrition. at UCLA. “The food industry is really smart.”
Surampudi said she tells her patients to steer clear of fast foods and foods loaded with added sugars and, instead of white bread, for example, choose products made from whole grains, which help them feel full.
Dr. Evelyn Attia, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said it’s likely that certain foods tap into the same brain circuits that make a person feel good when they’re on an abusive substance. .
But, she said, ‘it’s hard when we talk about food the same way we talk about drugs. … We cannot completely abstain from food.”
The big problem for some experts is that food addiction, unlike gambling addiction and binge eating, has no entry in the official guide that specialists use to diagnose mental illness, the DSM-5.
While the report highlights that some people have trouble controlling themselves with certain foods, the idea that people can become addicted to foods is “somewhat controversial,” said David Creel, a psychologist and registered dietitian at the Bariatric & Metabolic Institute in Cleveland, Ohio. -clinic. “It’s not accepted as a diagnosis at this point.”
Creel said he sees a big difference between a person’s inability to stop eating Oreos and not being able to resist the lure of illegal drugs. Still, he said, you could think of an inability to control eating certain foods as a continuum with drug addiction on one side.
Food addiction is “considered theoretical rather than established science,” said Colleen Schreyer, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Still, Schreyer said, “I do believe there are strong parallels between addictive disorders and food cravings and eating disorders. The difference is you can’t stop eating.”
Gearhardt said the study results should encourage health care providers to ask patients about dietary habits.
Attia agreed. “They should ask people what they ate that day and the night before, whether they snack or skip meals,” she said.
Schreyer said cognitive behavioral therapy can help patients deal with temptations — otherwise “the food will always have power over you,” she said.
“We work with people to teach normal eating habits so they aren’t in an intense state of hunger,” she said. “And it’s not the end of the world if you end up eating eight Oreos. That’s a win over 45 Oreos.”
Follow NBC HEALTH On Twitter & Facebook.