It may be that as many as 13% of older adults are addicted to highly processed comfort foods, a new survey finds.

Craving cookies, chips, packaged snacks and soda was seen in adults aged 50 to 80, according to new data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, from the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

Women had higher numbers of addiction to these foods than men, especially those in their 50s and early 60s. Older adults who were overweight or experiencing poor mental health or isolation also had much higher percentages of possible addiction to processed foods.

Researchers suggested that doctors should screen for these addictive eating habits, so that patients can get referrals to nutrition counseling or programs that help 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 researcher Ashley Gearhardt, an associate professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychology.

“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,” Gearhardt said in a university news release.

The poll surveyed 2,163 older adults in July 2022.

Researchers used a set of 13 questions to measure whether, and how often, respondents experienced signs of addiction to sweets, salty snacks, sugary drinks and fast food. These indicators include intense cravings, an inability to cut down on intake and signs of withdrawal.

Gearhardt co-developed the standardized questionnaire used in the poll, called the Yale Food Addiction Scale.

Those surveyed had to report experiencing at least two of 11 symptoms of addiction to meet the criteria, as well significant eating-related distress or life problems multiple times a week. These are the same criteria used to diagnose addiction-related problems with alcohol, tobacco and other addictive substances, the authors said.

Intense cravings were the most commonly reported addictive symptom found in the survey. About 24% said that at least once a week they had such a strong urge to eat a highly processed food that they couldn’t think of anything else. About 19% said that at least two to three times a week they had tried and failed to cut down on, or stop eating, these kinds of foods.

About 12% said that their eating behavior caused them a lot of distress at least two to three times a week.

“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 Dr. Jeffrey Kullgren, an associate professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine.

More information has more on healthy eating.

SOURCE: Michigan Medicine – University of Michigan, news release, Jan. 30, 2023