Addicted to fast food? New poll shows 13% of older Americans meet criteria

BOSTON — New research shows many people are addicted to processed foods such as ice cream, pizza, and chips which can lead to several illnesses.

Nearly half of the adults surveyed showed at least one sign of addiction to processed foods. Most of them were women.

Hamburgers, soda, and energy drinks are all highly processed foods and highly addictive too.

“Is this an addiction for me? I don’t know. I’d call it a craving,” said Boston 25 consumer advisor Clark Howard.

He is an admitted processed food lover.

“I mean, you know, we as humans crave what tastes good to us, and this tastes great to me,” Howard said.

Howard says he changed his diet after a cancer scare, cutting down on processed foods and lost 50 pounds. But Howard still craves and eats them --including ice cream -- just not as much.

Like Howard, a lot of Americans can’t kick the cravings.

Boston 25 News found there is a medical reason for that.

Researchers said dopamine in the brain starts pumping even before that first bite, triggered by the smell or even a fast-food logo.

“It really spikes the reward and motivation systems in the brain in a way that truly mimics what we see with ethanol, like alcoholic beverages, or with nicotine, like in cigarettes,” said Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Michigan.

That is by design, according to a new national poll on healthy aging by the University of Michigan.

“For decades, big tobacco was the biggest producer and marketer of processed food in the world. So, it really is the same playbook just with a new substance,” said Gearhardt.

Just like cigarettes, researchers found processed foods can lead to all sorts of illnesses including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

The poll randomly surveyed 2,163 people between 50 and 80 years old and found 13% met the criteria for addiction with at least two symptoms, like intense cravings, the inability to cut down, and signs of withdrawal.

Double the women met the criteria compared to men. Women between 50 and 64 years old had it the worst.

“Clearly people aren’t going to jail you know, breaking in to get their milkshake fix. They’re not dying of an overdose, but about 300,000 people a year are dying from preventable disease,” Gearhardt said.

Scientists said the earlier people start eating processed food the stronger the addiction.

“We see that over half of children’s calorie intake in the United States is from these low nutritional value but highly, intensely rewarding, highly processed foods,” Gearhardt said.

Doctors recommend nutritional counseling to help manage the addiction.

Because so many people are addicted to processed foods, researchers want doctors to start screening for it with the same questions used in this poll.

Download the FREE Boston 25 News app for breaking news alerts.

Follow Boston 25 News on Facebook and Twitter. | Watch Boston 25 News NOW

Comments on this article