According to a new study, a significant number of elderly people in the United States have an unhealthy relationship with food. The report, based on data from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging, found that one in eight people over 50 have a food addiction — and many involve ultra-processed foods.
The researchers also found that almost half of the older adults had at least one symptom of addiction to highly processed foods.
Food addiction, if you’re not familiar with it, is a term used to describe an eating behavior that involves excessive consumption of certain foods in an addictive manner. People with food addictions tend to experience symptoms such as loss of control over how much they eat, intense cravings, continuing to eat certain foods despite negative consequences, and feelings of withdrawal such as restlessness, irritability, and depression when they cut back on those foods. , study co-author Ashley Gearhardt, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, tells Yahoo Life.
Food addiction is often associated with ultra-processed foods, which are foods made with few or no whole ingredients and lots of sugar, salt, and fat to make them “very tasty,” Keri Gans, author The diet of a small change and registered dietitian, according to Yahoo Life. “When consumed, they lead to the release of dopamine in our brain and leave us craving more and more of this feel-good hormone,” he 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 cravings and make us want more and more,” says Gearhardt. “This is good for profits, but not for our health. Plus, these ultra-processed foods are cheap, readily available, convenient and heavily marketed, making them harder to resist.”
Food addiction is usually emotionally related in some way, as people “eat to try to feel better,” Sonya Angelone, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Yahoo Life. “However, it usually makes them feel worse,” she says.
Food addiction can be associated with many distressing emotions, Gearhardt says, and people often have trouble stopping eating the foods they’re addicted to. “If your relationship with ultra-processed foods is causing you a lot of anxiety or is impairing your ability to be effective in your own life, it may be time to seek professional help,” she says.
With ultra-processed foods such as chips, cookies, packaged pastries and fast food readily available and marketed in our society, it can be difficult to know if you have a food addiction or if you actually like certain foods. But people who have experienced food addiction say it can be a very distressing experience. Here is their story.
“I was going through the trash trying to get back the food I threw away.”
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 end result was food.” Somers says he is addicted to sugary foods and various carbohydrates. “I was overweight and I thought I was fat, so I started losing weight,” Somers tells Yahoo Life. “But the more weight I lost, the more it didn’t work – I kept gaining weight back and gaining more weight. I had a sense of failure and that this was never going to work.”
Somers says she started eating too much. “When the cravings hit, I ate as much as I could, whenever I could,” she says. He also started abusing alcohol because some diets did not have alcohol restrictions. “I think more than anything in the world I wanted to be someone else,” says Sh.
She had never heard the term “food addiction” until she was in her 30s, when she started attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings. “I was a trash eater—going through the trash to try to get back the food I threw away,” Somers says. “The food addiction took me to this horrible place. It was disgusting and horrible.”
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,” he says. “I thought people like me who were unhappy deserved an easy way out, until one day there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.”
She found that sugar and carbohydrates (which turn into sugar in the body) were particularly 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 manage portion sizes. “I’ve been doing it for 16 years. It’s just what I do, and it’s my medicine,” he says. “I’m lucky. No one knows I have a food addiction unless I tell them.”
Somers says she has also improved her relationship with food. “I thought 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 her results, Somers says she still sees herself as a food addict. “It’s a disease that can’t be cured — it can only be stopped,” he says.
“I would binge eat until I felt physically ill because eating made me happy.”
Raul Quiroz tells Yahoo Life that he has “always had a difficult relationship with food.”
“I’ve always been bullied for being overweight, so my food addiction and bullying led me to develop various eating disorders – both anorexia and bulimia,” she says. “I would binge eat until I felt physically ill because eating made me happy, but once I had eaten, then anger and regret would take over my mind.”
Quiroz says he realized that his relationship with food was different from others when he moved to Europe to attend school at the age of 21. “I had to share a room and apartment with other students, which included sharing a fridge when I was 16. other guys,” he says. “I noticed how my roommates would leave food on their plate and save it for later or throw it in the trash. I couldn’t do that. I had to make up my mind to finish everything on my plate.”
He also noticed that his roommates would buy big bags of chips that would last for weeks, while he ate an entire bag in minutes. “My input was extremely different from everyone else’s, and that’s when I realized I had a real problem,” he says.
So Quiroz saw a nutritionist and started going to compulsive eaters Anonymous meetings. “I had to learn how to count calories, weigh my food and understand how food works,” she says. “Even though I met a professional, I still ate sometimes, and it showed in my weight.”
Quiroz says the 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,” she says. “The program gave me the tools I needed to manage my addictions.”
Now Quiroz says his relationship with food is “better than ever.” She adds, “Now I know my dosage and how often I can allow myself to ‘cheat.'” She also works out regularly, adding, “I’m in the best shape of my life.”
What to do if you suspect you have a food addiction
If you suspect you have a food addiction, Gearhardt recommends first showing yourself some compassion. “This is really hard,” he says. “Our brains are not ready to handle ultra-processed foods, which are highly rewarding.”
She recommends seeking help from a professional, such as a mental health counselor, doctor, nutritionist or support group. “You can also focus on trying to eat regularly — three meals, one or two snacks — ‘real’ foods,” she says. “If you’re getting nutrition, your brain will respond less to ultra-processed foods.”
It’s also important to understand what your triggers are, such as certain times of day, people and places, and have a plan to navigate through difficult situations. “For many people, that means developing alternative ways of dealing with stress and regulating emotions,” she says.
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