A significant proportion of older people in the U.S. have an unhealthy relationship with food, according to a new study. The report, which was conducted using data from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging, found that 1 in 8 people over the age of 50 has a food addiction — and many involve ultra-processed foods.
The researchers also discovered that nearly half of older adults had at least one symptom of addiction to highly processed foods.
Food addiction, in case you're not familiar with it, is a term used to describe an eating behavior that involves over-consuming specific foods in an addictive manner. People with food addiction tend to experience symptoms such as a loss of control over how much they eat, intense cravings, continuing to eat certain foods despite experiencing negative consequences and having feelings of withdrawal such as agitation, irritability and depression when cutting down on those foods, the study's co-author, Ashley Gearhardt, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Michigan University, tells Yahoo Life.
Food addiction is often linked to ultra-processed foods, which are foods made with little to no whole ingredients, along with a lot of sugar, salt and fat, to "make them highly palatable," Keri Gans, author of The Small Change Diet and a registered dietitian, tells Yahoo Life. "When consumed, they lead to a release of dopamine in our brain, and leave us wanting more and more of this feel-good hormone," she says.
Experts say this is done on purpose. "There is evidence that the food industry designs ultra-processed foods to be highly rewarding, to maximize craveability and to make us want more and more and more," Gearhardt says. "This is good for profits, but not good for our health. Also, these ultra-processed foods are cheap, accessible, convenient and heavily marketed, which makes it harder to resist them."
Food addiction is usually tied in with emotions in some way, with people "eating to try to feel better," registered dietitian Sonya Angelone, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Yahoo Life. "However, it usually ends up making them feel worse," she says.
Food addiction can be linked with a lot of distressing feelings, Gearhardt says, and people often struggle to stop eating foods that they're addicted to. "If your relationship with ultra-processed foods is causing you a lot of distress or impairing your ability to be effective in your own life, it may be time to seek professional help," she says.
Given that ultra-processed foods such as chips, cookies, packaged pastries and fast food are readily available and promoted in our society, it can be tough to know whether you have a food addiction or just really like certain foods. But people who have experienced food addiction say it can be a highly distressing experience. Here are their stories.
'I would go through garbage to try to get back food that I dumped in the trash.'
Sara Somers, who wrote a memoir about her food addiction called Saving Sara: A Memoir of Food Addiction, tells Yahoo Life that she was "always addicted to something — and the bottom line was food." Somers says she was addicted to sugary foods, as well as different kinds of carbohydrates. "I was overweight and thinking I was obese, so I started dieting," Somers tells Yahoo Life. "But the more I dieted, the more it didn't work — I kept gaining the weight back, plus more. I got a sense of failure and that this was never going to work."
Somers says she began overeating. "When a craving hit, I would just eat as much as I could, whenever I could," she says. She also began abusing alcohol, because some diets had no restrictions on alcohol. "I think that what I wanted more than anything in the world was to be somebody else," sh says.
She had never heard the phrase "food addiction" until she was in her 30s, when she started going to Overeaters Anonymous meetings. "I was a garbage can eater — I would go through garbage to try to get back food that I dumped in the trash," Somers shares. "Food addiction would take me to this terrible place. It was disgusting and awful."
Somers says she discovered 12-step programs through Alcoholics Anonymous, but resisted treatment for years. "I got a solution, I didn't like it and I didn't want to work that hard," she says. "I thought people like me who were miserable deserved an easy way out, until one day, there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do."
She discovered that sugar and carbohydrates (which convert to sugar in the body) were especially problematic for her. "It turned out that not eating sugar, grains or certain carbohydrates like rice and potatoes was actually easier," she says. "The cravings went away."
Now, Somers weighs her food at every meal to help her control portion sizes. "I've been doing it for 16 years. It's just what I do, and it's my medicine," she says. "I feel lucky. Nobody knows I have an addiction to food unless I tell them."
Somers says she's also improved her relationship with food. "I used to think food was the enemy," she says. "Now, I've learned to cook. I enjoy food. I'm never hungry. I never have cravings. My relationship with food is good."
Despite the gains she's made, Somers says she still views herself as having a food addiction. "It's an illness that can't be cured — it can only be arrested," she says.
'I would binge-eat until I'd feel physically ill, because eating made me happy.'
Raul Quiroz tells Yahoo Life that he's "always had a difficult relationship with food."
"I was always bullied for being overweight, so my food addiction and the bullying made me develop different eating disorders — both anorexia and bulimia," he says. "I would binge-eat until I'd feel physically ill because eating made me happy but, once I was done eating, that's when the anger and regret would invade my mind."
Quiroz says he realized his relationship with food was different from that of others when he moved to Europe to go to school at the age of 21. "I had to share a room and apartment with other students, and that included sharing a fridge with 16 other guys," he says. "I noticed how my roommates would leave food on their plate and save it for later or they would just throw it to the trash. I wasn't capable of that. In my mind, I had to finish everything that was on my plate."
He also noticed that his roommates would buy big bags of chips that would last them for weeks, while he would eat a whole bag in a matter of minutes. "My eating patterns were extremely different from everyone, and that's when I realized I had a real problem," he says.
So Quiroz met with a dietitian and started going to Compulsive Eaters Anonymous meetings. "I had to learn how to count my calorie intake, weigh my food and understand how food works," he says. "Even though I was seeing a professional, I was still binge-eating at times, and that was being reflected in my weight."
Quiroz says that Compulsive Eaters Anonymous meetings helped him understand the emotions behind his eating habits. "I had to follow the 12 steps and start living one day at a time," he says. "The program gave me the tools that I needed to control my addiction."
Now, Quiroz says, his relationship with food is "better than ever." He adds, "Now I know my portions and how often I can allow myself to 'cheat.'" He also works out regularly, adding: "I am in the best shape of my life."
What to do if you suspect you have a food addiction
If you think you have a food addiction, Gearhardt recommends that you first show yourself some compassion. "This is really hard," she says. "Our brains are not set up to handle ultra-processed foods that are intensely rewarding."
She suggests seeking out the help of a professional, such a mental health counselor, doctor, nutritionist or support group. "You can also focus on trying to eat regularly — three meals, one or two snacks — of 'real' foods," she says. "If you are nourished, your brain is less reactive to ultra-processed foods."
It's also crucial to understand what your triggers are, such as certain times of day, people and places, and to come up with a plan to navigate the tricky situations. "For a lot of people, that means developing alternative ways to deal with stress and regulate your emotions," she says.
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