Food Addiction Affects 1 in 8 Americans Over Age 50 Years: New Poll Findings

Published on: February 2, 2023

Grace Halsey

Among Americans aged 50 to 80 years, approximately 13% met criteria for addiction to highly processed foods in the past year, according to new data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging. The poll found the percentage higher among women than men, and among older adults who say they are overweight, lonely, or in poor health, physically or emotionally.

Intense craving led symptoms of addiction to highly processed foods with nearly 1 in 4 respondents (24%) saying that at least once a week they had such a strong urge to eat food in this category that they couldn’t think of anything else. Their eating behavior caused a significant amount of stress for 12% of those polled up to 3 times a week or more.

“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 University of Michigan (U-M) psychologist Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, MPhil, MS in a U-M release. Gearhardt, an associate professor of psychology at U-M added, “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 and the U-M poll team used a questionnaire consisting of 13 questions to determine whether and how often older adults experienced the core indicators of addiction in relationship with highly processed foods (eg, sweets, salty snacks, sugared drinks, fast food). The criteria are the same used to diagnose addiction-related problems with alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive substances.

To classify as having a food addiction, the 2163 participants had to demonstrate 2 of 11 symptoms of addiction to highly processed foods, as well as report eating-related distress or life problems multiple times a week.

Symptoms of addiction include intense cravings, an inability to cut down on intake, and signs of withdrawal upon reducing intake.

Given the poll’s findings, Gearhardt suggests that this set of questions be incorporated into clinical screening at office visits to help identify adults with food addiction who could benefit from nutritional counseling, support groups that address addictive eating, or from affordable access to healthier foods.

Based on the criteria of meeting at least 2 out of 11 symptoms of addiction, the U-M team found that women were more likely to experience food addiction compared with men (18% vs. 8%). Respondents aged 50 to 64 years were also more likely to have food addiction compared with those aged 65 to 80 years (17% vs. 8%), with women aged 50 to 64 years being the most likely to meet the criteria (22%). More findings on respondents meeting criteria for addiction to highly