The phrase “comfort food” might bring to mind warm, comforting meals that help us feel better during difficult times. However, a new poll suggests that for a significant number of older Americans, comfort foods are becoming a source of addiction. In fact, 13% of people aged 50 to 80 showed signs of addiction to junk foods and sugary drinks, according to the National Poll on Healthy Aging. The trend is more pronounced among women, particularly those in their 50s and 60s, and among older adults who are overweight, lonely, or in poor physical or mental health.
Is Food Addiction Real?
Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Michigan, co-developed the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a standardized questionnaire used in the poll to measure addiction to highly processed foods. According to Gearhardt, research has shown that the brain responds to junk foods, especially those high in sugar, fat, and simple starches, as strongly as it does to tobacco, alcohol, and other addictive substances.
“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,” says Gearhardt.
The questionnaire used in the poll assessed older adults’ experiences with core indicators of addiction, including intense cravings, an inability to cut down on intake, and signs of withdrawal.
Diagnosing Food Addiction in Older Adults
To meet the criteria for addiction to highly processed foods on the Yale Food Addiction Scale, older adults had to report at least two symptoms of addiction and significant eating-related distress or life problems multiple times a week. These are the same criteria used to diagnose addiction to alcohol, tobacco, and other substances. The most commonly reported symptom of addiction to junk foods was intense cravings, with 24% of older adults reporting a strong urge to eat junk food at least once a week. 19% reported that they had tried and failed to cut down on junk foods 2 to 3 times a week.
Implications of Food Addiction
The consumption of highly processed foods high in sugar and fat is a major source of calories for many Americans, including older adults, and contributes to chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer, which are leading causes of preventable death globally. These foods can be addictive due to triggering the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system, making it challenging for older adults to reduce their intake, even for the sake of better health.
The poll found that over 10% of older adults met the criteria for addiction to highly processed food, comparable to or even surpassing the prevalence of addiction to substances like tobacco (10%) and alcohol (4%). Physical and mental health problems, being overweight, and social isolation were all linked to meeting the addiction criteria for highly processed food, with women’s mental health being particularly affected.
Screening for highly processed food addiction at healthcare visits can help identify older adults who need additional resources, such as nutrition education or access to healthy, affordable foods. Older adults who meet the addiction criteria or express concerns about their symptoms can benefit from programs addressing their physical and mental health needs.
Women and Overweight Older Adults More Prone to Food Addiction
The poll revealed that women were more likely to be addicted to junk foods than men. Addiction to highly processed foods was found in the following groups:
- 17% of adults aged 50-64 and 8% of those aged 65-80
- 22% of women aged 50-64 and 18% of women aged 50-80
- 32% of women with fair/poor physical health and 14% of men with fair/poor physical health, 2x higher than those with excellent/very good/good physical health
- 45% of women with fair/poor mental health and 23% of men with fair/poor mental health, 3x higher than those with excellent/very good/good mental health
- 17% of overweight men and 1% of men with around right weight
- 34% of overweight women and 4% of women with around right weight
- 51% of women who often feel isolated and 26% of men who often feel isolated, compared to 8% of women and 4% of men who rarely feel isolated.
Addressing Food Addiction in Older Adults
The poll’s results suggest that standard questions about food addiction should become part of screening at doctor’s offices to help identify older adults with problematic eating habits. Gearhardt suggests that referrals to nutrition counseling or programs that help people address addictive eating and access healthier foods could help these individuals develop a healthier relationship with food.
“Clinicians need a better understanding of how food addiction and problematic eating intertwine with their patients’ physical and mental health,” says Jeffrey Kullgren, M.D., M.P.H., M.S., the poll’s director. “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.”
The National Poll on Healthy Aging’s findings suggest that a significant number of older Americans have an unhealthy relationship with junk foods and sugary drinks. This situation is worsened by the tendency of individuals to overestimate how healthy their diet is. Women, particularly those in their 50s and 60s, and overweight and lonely individuals are more likely to show signs of addiction. The poll suggests that doctors should screen older adults for food addiction and refer them to programs that can help them develop a healthier relationship with food.
Rahul is a sports and performance consultant. Over the course of his 15-year career in the fitness sector, he has held positions as a strength and conditioning instructor, gym owner, and consultant.
He is deeply committed to assisting people in finding happiness and feeling good about themselves.
Rahul has a master’s degree in exercise science and is a certified NSCA CSCS and CISSN.