5 Signs You’re Addicted to Junk Food (Like 13% of Older Americans)

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If chips and candy bars have a strong hold on your mind — and waistline — you are not alone.

About 13% of older Americans meet the criteria for addiction to junk food and beverages, according to new data from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging, which surveyed more than 2,100 people ages 50 to 80.

So, who is most likely to become addicted to highly processed foods?

Who is most likely to become addicted to junk food?

Senior woman eating junk food
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The poll found that women (18%) are much more likely than men (8%) to meet criteria for addiction to highly processed foods. Addiction is especially prevalent among women ages 50 to 64, with 22% in that age group meeting that criteria.

Among all survey respondents, the likelihood of being addicted was higher in those who report being:

  • Overweight
  • Lonely
  • In fair or poor mental health

Can you really become addicted to food?

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It might seem like it’s impossible to become addicted to food. But in a summary of the findings, Ashley Gearhardt, a University of Michigan psychologist, says:

“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.”

To meet the researchers’ criteria for an addiction to highly processed food, older adults had to report experiencing at least two of 11 symptoms of addiction in the past year. They also had to report “significant eating-related distress or life problems” several times weekly.

Are you addicted to junk food?

Woman eating potato chips
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Survey participants were asked questions about any foods they had difficulty with in the prior year but particularly about sweets, starches, salty snacks, fatty foods and sugary drinks.

According to the researchers, the most commonly reported symptoms of addiction to such foods are:

  • Having such strong urges to eat certain foods that you can’t think of anything else (at least once a week) — reported by 24% of survey respondents
  • Trying but failing to cut back on certain foods (two to three times a week) — 19%
  • Eating certain foods after experiencing emotional problems due to not having eaten those foods (once a week) — 17%
  • No longer getting as much enjoyment as you used to out of eating the same amount of food (two to three times a week) — 13%
  • Friends or family worrying about your overeating (once a month) — 12%

Now what?

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In the summary of the poll’s findings, Dr. Jeffrey Kullgren — poll director and an associate professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine and physician and researcher at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System — says the poll results indicate that clinicians need to more fully understand how food addiction relates to their patients’ physical and mental health:

“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.”

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