Eating too many sweets or salty snacks might sound like something you’d stop growing, but a sizeable proportion of adults 50 and older say they can’t say no to highly processed foods, a poll released Monday by the University of Michigan Institute for Health Care Policy and Innovation.

About 1 in 8 adults over the age of 50 showed signs of food addiction, according to the survey.

The researchers looked at responses from more than 2,000 adults ages 50 to 80 who completed the university’s National Survey on Healthy Aging. More women than men met the criteria for the survey’s definition of addiction. Those who said they were overweight, lonely, or in fair to poor physical or mental health were also more likely than others to meet 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 any foods they had trouble with in the last 12 months.

«The ability of these foods to trigger the classic core signs of addiction is on par with what we see with alcohol and tobacco in this older population,» said Ashley Gearhardt, an associate professor in the department of psychology at University of Michigan at Ann. Arbor. «We think this is also true in younger populations.»

Gearhardt and his team used questions from the Yale Food Addiction Scale to measure whether older adults were experiencing core indicators of addiction. Among the symptoms that people checked most frequently were:

  • I had such a strong urge to eat certain foods that I couldn’t think of anything else (24% said this happened once a week).
  • I tried and couldn’t cut down or stop eating certain foods (19% said this happened two to three times a week).
  • If I had emotional problems from not eating certain foods, I would eat them (17%, once a week).
  • Eating the same amount of food did not give me as much pleasure as before (13%, two or three times a week).
  • My friends and family were concerned about how much I was overeating (12%, once a month).
  • My eating behavior caused me a lot of distress (12%, two or three times a week).
  • I had major problems in my life due to eating and eating (9%, two or three times a week).

Gearhardt was a member of the group that devised the Yale Food Addiction Scale. The scale uses the same criteria used to diagnose substance addictions and applies it to highly processed foods, she said.

Gearhardt suspects that ultra-processed foods, which are high in fat, sugar and salt, tap into the brain’s reward system and trigger the release of dopamine, the same chemical signal that makes people feel pleasure when they eat enough, have sexual intercourse or use certain drugs. .

Another insidious component of these foods, he said, is that companies strip out fiber and water, making it easy for people to consume large amounts without feeling full.

“When you feel full, there are hormones in the gut that turn down the dopamine system,” Gearhardt added. «These foods don’t seem to be signaling satiety, so there’s no downregulation of the dopamine system.»

“People are really conflicted and struggling with their relationship with these highly processed foods,” Gearhardt said. «Many are not aware of how powerful these foods are.»

“The most important thing with ultra-processed foods is to realize that once you eat one, you may not be able to stop at one and you may need to keep eating more,” said Dr. Vijaya Surampudi, an assistant professor of medicine at the Human Nutrition Center. at UCLA. “The food industry is really smart.”

Surampudi said she tells her patients to stay away from fast foods and those loaded with added sugar and instead of white bread, for example, choose products made with whole grains, which will give them a feeling of fullness.

Dr. Evelyn Attia, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Eating Disorders Center at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said that certain foods are likely to access the same brain circuits that make a person feel good when use a substance of abuse.

But, he said, “it’s complicated when we talk about food in a similar way to how we think about substances of abuse. … We cannot completely abstain from eating.”

The big problem for some experts is that addiction to food, unlike addiction to gambling and binge eating, does not have an entry in the official guide that specialists use to diagnose mental illnesses, the DSM-5.

While the report highlights the fact that some people have difficulty controlling themselves with certain foods, the idea that people can become addicted to food «is somewhat controversial,» said David Creel, a psychologist and registered dietitian with the Bariatric Institute and Cleveland Clinic Metabolic. «It is not accepted as a diagnosis at this time.»

Creel said he sees a big difference between a person’s inability to stop eating Oreos and not being able to resist the pull of illicit drugs. Still, he said, it’s possible he sees the inability to control eating certain foods as part of a continuum that has drug addiction at one end.

Food addiction «is considered more theoretical 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 think there are strong parallels between addictive disorders and food cravings and eating disorders. The difference is that you can’t stop eating.”

Gearhardt said the survey results should encourage healthcare providers to ask patients about their 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 that cognitive behavioral therapy can help patients deal with temptations; otherwise, «food will always have power over you,» she said.

“We work with people to establish normal eating habits so they don’t have an intense state of hunger,” he said. “And it’s not the end of the world if you end up eating eight Oreos. That’s a win over 45 Oreos.»

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