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Comfort Food’s Dangerous Addiction

Older Adults Are at Increasing Risk

Comfort Food's Dangerous Addiction

By John Salak –

Comfort food is more than just comforting. It is addictive—and considering they’re unhealthy, that is not a pretty wellness recipe.

About 13 percent of Americans aged 50 to 80 are addicted to highly processed foods such as sweets, salty snacks, sugary drinks and fast food, according to the National Poll on Healthy Aging. More troubling still is that the percentage of those addicted to “comforting foods” is much higher in older adults who are already at risk because they are overweight, lonely or in poor physical or mental health. The percentage of addicted Americans is also much higher among women than men—especially women in their 50s and early 60s.

The results are from a poll taken at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and supported by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and Michigan Medicine. The study used 13 questions to measure how often and under what conditions older adults experienced intense cravings, an inability to cut consumption or signs of withdrawal from highly processed foods.

More detailed results of the poll showed that 32 percent of women in poor physical health were an addiction to comfort foods, while 45 percent of women in fair or poor mental health had an uncontrollable attraction to these foods. Just over 50 percent of the women who felt isolated were also addicted.

Uncomforting Food Risks

“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,” reported Michigan psychologist Ashley Gearhardt, who headed the project. “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.”

The study may offer doctors a new component to help them identify older adults with addictive eating habits while providing troubling insights. Physicians could use questions like the Michigan-backed food poll as part of their standard patient screening process, Gearhardt noted.

“Clinicians need a better understanding of how food addiction and problematic eating intertwines with their patient’s physical and mental health, including chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer,” said poll director Dr. Jeffrey Kullgren, an associate professor at Michigan Medicine. “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.”





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