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13 percent of Americans over 50 are addicted to processed foods

(Illustration by Elizabeth von Oehsen/The Washington Post, iStock )
2 min

Thirteen percent of the over-50 population, or about 1 in 8 people over 50, cannot control their consumption of highly processed foods — such as sweet or salty snacks, fatty foods and sugary drinks, according to a report from the University of Michigan’s ongoing National Poll on Healthy Aging.

The report’s findings were based on a nationally representative sample of 2,163 people ages 50 to 80. The 13 percent were found to have two or more symptoms of addiction to highly processed foods, but nearly half of the participants (44 percent) had at least one symptom.

The most common symptoms were intense cravings, along with unsuccessful attempts to cut back on consumption and signs of withdrawal, such as irritability, trouble concentrating and headaches. Those with a food addiction also reported distress or problems in their daily life caused by their eating behavior.

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More women than men met addiction criteria, and the percentage also was higher among those who were overweight or felt isolated from others, and those who described their physical or mental health as fair or poor.

Addiction to highly processed foods was found to be more common among adults 50 to 64 than those 65 to 80. The researchers wrote that the addictive nature of such foods might stem from their ability to trigger the brain’s release of dopamine, sometimes called a feel-good chemical, “at levels comparable to nicotine and alcohol.” The release of dopamine sparks good feelings as well as the desire to continue or repeat the feeling.

This article is part of The Post’s “Big Number” series, which takes a brief look at the statistical aspect of health issues. Additional information and relevant research are available through the hyperlinks.