A significant proportion of older adults in the United States have an unhealthy relationship with food, according to a new study. The report, which was conducted using data from the University of Michigan’s National Healthy Aging Survey, found that one in eight people over the age of 50 suffer from a food addiction – and many involve ultra-processed foods.
Researchers also found that nearly half of older adults had at least one symptom of addiction to highly processed foods.
Food addiction, in case you are not familiar with it, is a term used to describe an eating behavior that involves overconsumption of specific foods in an addictive manner. People with food addiction tend to experience symptoms such as loss of control over the amount of food they eat, intense food cravings, continuing to eat certain foods despite negative consequences, and feelings of withdrawal such as restlessness, irritability and depression when cutting down on these foods. , study co-author Ashley Gearhardt, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, told Yahoo Life.
Food addiction is often linked to ultra-processed foods, which are foods prepared with few or no whole ingredients, as well as lots of sugar, salt and fat, to “make them very appetizing,” Keri Gans, author of The small change diet and a dietitian, tells Yahoo Life. “When consumed, they trigger a release of dopamine in our brains and make us crave this feel-good hormone more and more,” she says.
Experts say it’s done on purpose. “There is evidence that the food industry designs ultra-processed foods to be highly rewarding, to maximize cravings, and to make us crave more and more,” Gearhardt says. “It’s good for profits, but not good for our health. Plus, these ultra-processed foods are cheap, accessible, convenient and heavily marketed, making it harder to resist.”
Food addiction is usually tied to emotions in one way or another, with people “eating to try to feel better,” registered dietitian Sonya Angelone, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition, told Yahoo Life and of dietetics. “However, it usually ends up making them worse,” she says.
Food addiction can be linked to many feelings of distress, Gearhardt says, and people often find it hard to stop eating foods 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.
Since ultra-processed foods such as chips, cookies, packaged pastries and fast food are readily available and promoted in our society, it can be difficult to know if you are addicted to food or if you really like certain foods. food. But people who have experienced food addiction say it can be a very distressing experience. Here are their stories.
“I would go through the garbage to try and get the food I threw in the trash.”
Sara Somers, who wrote a memoir about her food addiction titled Saving Sara: Memory of Food Addiction, tells Yahoo Life that she was “always addicted to something – and the main thing was food.” Somers says she was addicted to sugary foods, as well as different types of carbohydrates. “I was overweight and thought I was obese, so I started dieting,” Somers told Yahoo Life. “But the more I dieted, the more it didn’t work – I kept gaining weight, and more. I had a feeling of failure and that it was never going to work.”
Somers says she started overeating. “When a craving hit, I just ate as much as I could, whenever I could,” she says. She also began to abuse alcohol, as some diets had no restrictions on alcohol. “I think what I wanted more than anything was to be someone else,” sh says.
She had never heard of the term “food addiction” until she was 30, when she started attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings. “I was a trash eater – I was rummaging through trash cans to try and get food that I had thrown in the trash,” Somers shares. “Food addiction would take me to this terrible place. It was disgusting and awful.”
Somers says she discovered the 12-step programs through Alcoholics Anonymous, but resisted treatment for years. “I found a solution, I didn’t like it and I didn’t want to work so hard,” she says. “I thought people like me who were miserable deserved an easy way out, until the day they had nowhere to go and nothing else to do.”
She found that sugar and carbs (which turn into sugar in the body) were particularly problematic for her. “It turned out that it was actually easier not to eat sugar, grains, or certain carbs like rice and potatoes,” she says. “The cravings are gone.”
Now, Somers weighs her food at each 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’m lucky. No one knows I have a food addiction unless I tell them.”
Somers says she also improved her relationship with food. “Before, I thought food was the enemy,” she says. “Now I’ve learned to cook. I love 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 considers herself to be addicted to food. “It’s a disease that can’t be cured – it can only be stopped,” she says.
“I ate excessively until I felt physically ill, because eating made me happy.”
Raul Quiroz told Yahoo Life that he “always had a difficult relationship with food.”
“I was always bullied because I was overweight, so my food addiction and bullying caused me to develop different eating disorders, both anorexia and bulimia,” says -he. “I ate excessively until I felt physically ill because eating made me happy, but once I finished eating that’s when anger and regret flooded my mind. 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 an apartment with other students, and that included sharing a fridge with 16 other guys,” he says. on their plate and saved it for later or simply threw it in the trash. I couldn’t. In my mind, I had to finish everything on my plate. “
He also noticed his roommates buying large bags of crisps that lasted for weeks, while he ate an entire bag in minutes. “My eating habits were wildly different from everyone else, and that’s when I realized I had a real problem,” he says.
So Quiroz met a dietician and started going to Compulsive Eaters Anonymous meetings. “I had to learn how to count my calories, weigh my food, and understand how food works,” he says. “Even though I was seeing a professional, I still had binge eating from time to time, and that was reflected in my weight.”
Quiroz says Compulsive Eaters Anonymous meetings have 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 I needed to control my addiction.”
Now, says Quiroz, his relationship with food is “better than ever.” He adds, “Now I know my portions and how often I can afford to ‘cheat’.” He also trains regularly, adding, “I’m in the best shape of my life.”
What to do if you think you have a food addiction
If you think you have a food addiction, Gearhardt recommends showing yourself some compassion first. “It’s really difficult,” she said. “Our brains are not wired to handle ultra-processed foods that are intensely rewarding.”
She suggests seeking professional help, such as a mental health counselor, doctor, nutritionist, or support group. “You can also try eating regular foods — three meals, one or two snacks — of ‘real’ food,” she says. “If you’re fed, your brain is less responsive to ultra-processed foods.”
It’s also crucial to understand what your triggers are, such as certain times of day, people, and places, and come up with a plan to navigate tricky situations. “For many people, that means developing alternative ways to deal with stress and regulate your emotions,” she says.
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