What it’s like to live with a food addiction

Food addiction illustration with an open mouth with teeth and junk food floating around.

A new report finds that 1 in 8 people over the age of 50 have a food addiction — and ultra-processed foods play a role. (Photos: Getty; Illustration: Joamir Salcedo)

A significant proportion of older people in the US have an unhealthy relationship with food, according to a new study. The report, which was compiled using data from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging, found that 1 in 8 people over the age of 50 have a food addiction — and many of them involve ultra-processed foods.

The researchers also found that nearly half of the older adults had at least one symptom of addiction to highly processed foods.

Food addiction, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a term used to describe eating behaviors where you consume too many specific foods in an addictive way. People with food addiction tend to experience symptoms such as a loss of control over how much they eat, intense cravings, continuing to eat certain foods despite negative consequences, and feelings of withdrawal such as agitation, irritability, and depression when cutting back. food. , the study’s co-author, Ashley Gearhardt, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Michigan University, tells Yahoo Life.

Food addiction is often associated with ultra-processed foods, foods made with little to no whole ingredients, along with lots of sugar, salt, and fat, to make them “very palatable,” says Keri Gans, author of The small change diet and a registered dietitian, Yahoo Life tells WebMD. “When consumed, they trigger the release of dopamine in our brain, which makes us want more and more of this feel-good hormone,” she says.

Experts say this was done on purpose. “There is some evidence that the food industry is designing ultra-processed foods to be highly rewarding, to maximize cravings, and to keep us craving more and more,” says Gearhardt. “This is good for profits, but not good for our health. Plus, these ultra-processed foods are cheap, accessible, convenient, and marketed in abundance, making them harder to resist.”

Food addiction is usually tied to emotions in some way, with people “eating to try and feel better,” registered dietitian Sonya Angelone, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Yahoo Life. “However, it usually makes them feel worse,” she says.

Food addiction can come with many distressing feelings, says Gearhardt, and people often have a hard time stopping eating foods they’re addicted to. “If your relationship with ultra-processed foods is causing you great distress or is interfering with your ability to be effective in your own life, it may be time to seek professional help,” she says.

Since ultra-processed foods like chips, cookies, packaged pastries, and fast foods are readily available and promoted in our society, it can be difficult to know if you have a food addiction or just really like certain foods. But people who have experienced food addiction say it can be a very distressing experience. Here are their stories.

“I went through the trash to get back food I dumped in the trash.”

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 in the end, what mattered was food.” Somers says she was addicted to sugary foods, as well as various carbohydrates. “I was overweight and thought I was obese, so I started dieting,” Somers tells Yahoo Life. “But the more I went on a diet, the more it didn’t work — I gained more and more weight, plus more. I got a sense of failure and that this 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 alcohol restrictions. “I think what I wanted more than anything in the world was to be someone else,” sh says.

She hadn’t heard the phrase “food addiction” until she was in her thirties, when she started attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings. “I was a trash can eater — going through the trash to get back food I dumped in the trash,” Somers shares. “Food addiction would take 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 so hard,” she says. “I thought people like me who were miserable 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 are converted to sugar in the body) were especially problematic for her. “It turned out that it was actually easier not to eat sugar, grains or certain carbohydrates such as rice and potatoes,” she says. “The craving went away.”

Now Somers weighs her food at every meal to help control her portion sizes. “I’ve been doing it for 16 years. It’s just what I do, and it’s my medicine,” she says. “I feel happy. No one knows I’m addicted to food unless I tell them.”

Somers says she’s also improved her relationship with food. “I used to think food was the enemy,” she says. “Now I’ve learned to cook. I enjoy food. I’m never hungry. I’m never hungry. My relationship with food is good.”

Despite the gains she’s made, Somers says she still considers herself a food addict. “It’s a disease that can’t be cured — it can only be stopped,” she says.

“I ate 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 was always bullied for being overweight, so my food addiction and the bullying caused me to develop several eating disorders — both anorexia and bulimia,” he says. “I would binge until I felt physically ill because eating made me happy, but once I finished eating, the anger and regret entered my mind.”

Quiroz says he realized his relationship with food was different from others when he moved to Europe at age 21 to attend school. other guys,” he says. “I noticed how my housemates left food on their plates and saved it for later or they just threw it in the trash. I was incapable of that. In my mind, I had to eat everything on my plate.”

He also noticed that his housemates bought large bags of chips that lasted them for weeks, while he ate an entire bag in minutes. “My diet was very different from everyone else’s, and that’s when I realized I had a real problem,” he says.

So Quiroz met a dietician and went to Compulsive Eaters Anonymous meetings. “I had to learn how to count my calorie intake, weigh my food, and understand how food works,” he says. “Even though I saw a professional, I still bingeed occasionally, and that was reflected in my weight.”

Quiroz says 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,” 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 what my portions are and how often I can allow myself to ‘cheat’.” He 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 think you have a food addiction, Gearhardt recommends showing some compassion for yourself first. “This is really hard,” she says. “Our brains are not set up to handle ultra-processed foods that are intensely rewarding.”

She suggests seeking the help of a professional, such as a psychologist, doctor, nutritionist, or support group. “You can also focus on trying to eat regularly — three meals, one or two snacks — of ‘real’ foods,” she says. “When 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 for navigating the tricky situations. “For many people, that means developing alternative ways to cope with stress and regulate your emotions,” she says.

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