Eating too many sweet treats or salty snacks may sound like something you’d grow out of, but a sizable proportion of adults over 50 say they can’t say no to highly processed foods, a survey published Monday from the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation found.
About 1 in 8 adults over 50 showed signs of food addiction, according to the survey.
The researchers looked at the responses from more than 2,000 adults ages 50 through 80 who completed the university’s National Poll on Healthy Aging. More women than men met the criteria for the poll’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 fit 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 the participants to consider any food that they had trouble with in the past 12 months.
“The ability of these foods to trigger the core classic 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 the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “We think this is also true in younger populations.”
Gearhardt and her team used questions from the Yale Food Addiction Scale to measure whether older adults were experiencing core indicators of addiction. Among the symptoms people most commonly checked were:
- I had such strong urges to eat certain foods I couldn’t think of anything else (24% said this happened once a week).
- I tried and failed to cut down on or stop eating 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 would eat them (17%, once a week).
- Eating the same amount of food did not give me as much enjoyment as it used to (13%, two to three times a week).
- My friends and family were worried about how much I overate (12%, once a month).
- My eating behavior caused me a lot of distress (12%, two to three times a week).
- I had significant problems in my life because of food and eating (9%, two to 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 ultraprocessed foods, which are high in fats, sugar and salt, tap into the brain’s reward system, triggering the release of dopamine, the same signaling chemical that makes people feel pleasure when they get enough food, have sex or use certain drugs.
Another insidious component of these foods, she said, is that companies strip out fiber and water, which makes it easier for people to consume large quantities without ever feeling satiated.
“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 dampening of the dopamine system.”
“People feel really conflicted and struggle with their relationship with these highly processed foods,” Gearhardt said. “Many aren’t aware of how powerful these foods are.”
“The big thing with ultraprocessed foods is realizing that once you eat one, you may not be able to stop at one and may need to keep eating more,” said Dr. Vijaya Surampudi, an assistant professor of medicine at the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA. “The food industry is really clever.”
Surampudi said she tells her patients to steer clear of fast foods and those loaded with added sugar and, rather than white bread, for example, choose products made from whole grains, which will give them a feeling of satiety.
Dr. Evelyn Attia, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Eating Disorders at the 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 use a substance of abuse.
But, she said, “it’s tricky when we talk about foods in similar ways to the way we think about substances of abuse. … We can’t fully abstain from eating.”
The big problem for some experts is that food addiction, unlike gambling addiction and binge eating, doesn’t have an entry in the official guide specialists use to diagnose mental illnesses, the DSM-5.
While the report highlights the fact that some people have a hard time controlling themselves with certain foods, the idea that people can get addicted to food “is somewhat controversial,” said David Creel, a psychologist and registered dietitian at the Bariatric & Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. “It’s 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, you might see an inability to control eating certain foods as being on a continuum that has drug addiction at one end.
Food addiction is “considered to be theoretical rather than established science,” said Colleen Schreyer, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the 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 food.”
Gearhardt said that the survey results should encourage health providers to ask patients about dietary habits.
Attia agreed. “They should ask people about 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 foods will always hold power over you,” she said.
“We work with people to establish normal eating habits so they’re not 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.