Your love for junk food might be an actual addiction

Your love for junk food might be an actual addiction

Junk food, or highly processed foods – such as soda, frozen pizza, breakfast cereals and fast food – have been linked to everything from diabetes to cancer.

You know these foods by the ever-expanding ingredients list filled with additives, artificial flavors, coloring, sweeteners and preservatives. But just because they’re easy to spot, doesn’t mean they’re easy to resist.

A study found that one in eight Americans over age 50 have an unhealthy relationship with these foods and beverages. In fact, the researchers suggest that this group demonstrated some of the core indicators of an addiction, including a loss of control over consumption, intense cravings and signs of withdrawal.

The researchers asked participants a set of 13 questions designed to measure addiction indicators. To qualify for addiction to highly processed foods, participants had to report at least two of 11 symptoms of addiction as well significant eating-related stress multiple times per week.

“There are similarities in the way our brains respond to drugs, alcohol and food,” says Julie Offutt, a licensed clinical social worker and certified substance abuse counselor based at Aurora Health Care. “The study states that highly processed foods trigger the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system in a way that is comparable to some substances.”

Additionally, Offutt notes that excessive dependence on unhealthy foods can be considered a process addiction, or an attachment to a behavior or ritual.

“In this case the process addiction would be eating forbidden foods with unhealthy frequency, in excessive amounts, followed by severe shame and self-loathing,” she says. “Paradoxically, the shame and self-loathing contribute to the addictive cycle.”

Although 13% of all adults between the ages of 50 and 80 showed signs of addiction to highly processed foods, the results were more pronounced among women, particularly women between the ages of 50 and 64, with 22% meeting the definition of addiction.

Intense cravings were the most reported symptom of addiction. Nearly a quarter of participants said that at least once a week their cravings were so intense, they were unable to think about anything else.

“Years of research has led health care providers to view substance abuse as a complex disease with biological, psychological and social causes that affects both mental and physical health,” says Offutt. “These results help build the case that the same can be said of addiction to certain foods.”

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  1. Excellent article. I am going to monitor how much junk food my family and I eat and also pay attention to the emotional connection I have to these foods.

  2. Thanks for the education. Once an addiction is recognized, what is the next step to eliminating this addiction.?

  3. There are addictive chemicals in lots of food like MSG for example. that is most likely what is causing the addiction to processed foods. Doritos are very addictive and if you ever wonder why you can’t put the bag down, look at ingredients and start researching what you are eating.

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About the Author

Nick Bullock
Nick Bullock

Nick Bullock, health enews contributor, is a scientific writer and editor for Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care. He is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor with a background in science and research reporting. When he’s not writing about the latest health care research, Nick is usually hiking through Wisconsin state parks, reading sci-fi novels or historical nonfiction, trying new recipes, agonizing over Minnesota sports franchises and playing games with his family.