Older Adults Are Facing Challenges With Junk Food Addiction and Mental Wellbeing

Older Adults Are Facing Challenges With Junk Food Addiction and Mental Wellbeing

February 15, 2023
Sally Smithwick

A new study brings to light how vulnerable adult Americans are for addiction to highly processed foods, so much that these statistics are equally alarming and may even surpass addiction to tobacco (10%) and alcohol (4%) in this age category. The 2022 July University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found more than one in eight adults over 50 show signs of food addiction. Symptoms include feeling a loss of control over consumption, intense cravings, and signs of withdrawal (e.g., irritability, difficulty concentrating, or headaches). Nearly half of adults in this age range (44%) indicated at least one symptom of addiction to highly processed food.

The distinction between “processed foods” and “highly processed” or sometimes called “ultra processed foods” is important, and although widely understood in the retail dietitian arena can still often be misunderstood in the shopper world. According to the USDA, a processed food is defined by anything that changes the fundamental nature of an agricultural product — heating, freezing, dicing, canning, washing, milling, pasteurizing and juicing included. Many of these foods can still be healthy or good for you and offer a more affordable and convenient way of meeting nutritional needs including fruits and vegetables that otherwise might not be as accessible to those living in food deserts or facing the challenges of food inflation and food insecurity.

However, highly processed foods are manipulated a bit further and contain many added ingredients including sodium, sugar or saturated fats. These are the foods that a growing amount of research suggests can contribute to otherwise preventable chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. Experts suggest these types of foods are more addictive because they can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system at levels comparable to nicotine and alcohol.

Currently, approximately 34 percent of the US population is age 50 and over. Among these adults, poor physical health, obesity, mental health and social isolation were associated with food addiction in the National Poll on Healthy Aging. In fact, those who reported to having fair or poor mental health were found three times more likely to meet the addiction criteria. Women are at greater risk with almost one out of two experiencing fair or poor mental health and meeting the highly processed food addiction symptom criteria.

Psychological distress has been a growing concern in the US, particularly with spikes in anxiety and depression since the beginning of the pandemic. This could be the reason foods for mental wellbeing have been popping up on food shopper trends lists. The 2022 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council reported that 30% of Americans are seeking diet and nutrition to help manage stress.

As we seek to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges of food addiction and its connection to mental health, now is the time for retailers to embrace these needs and offer affordable and accessible ways for their shoppers to find foods that not only have higher nutritional profiles but also offer mood and stress support.