Prager, a 65-year-old retired journalist and author from Arlington, Massachusetts, is not unique in his experience. According to a 2023 report from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, backed by AARP, approximately 12.5% of adults between 50 and 80 exhibit signs of addiction to ultra-processed foods. These foods, typically high in sugar, salt, and fat, include the likes of sugary sodas, salty chips, and fatty fast foods. The report also reveals that nearly half of the older adult population has experienced at least one symptom of junk food addiction, such as intense cravings or withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit.
Ashley Gearhardt, co-author of the poll and director of the Food and Addiction Science & Treatment Lab at the University of Michigan, compares the initial consumption of these foods to the first sip of alcohol for some individuals – both can trigger a strong desire for more.
Ultra-processed foods undergo significant alterations from their original form, often with the addition of potent flavoring agents, preservatives, dyes, and refined fats and carbohydrates to enhance taste and appearance. These items, designed to be hyper-palatable, are omnipresent and cheap, posing a challenge for those trying to resist them, particularly in an environment where nearly 19 million Americans lack access to fresh, healthy options.
Today, a staggering 60% of the American diet's caloric intake comes from ultra-processed foods, contributing to the country's status as having the highest obesity rate among affluent nations. NIH studies have shown that individuals consuming a diet rich in processed foods tend to eat more and gain weight more quickly than those on a minimally processed diet, despite similar caloric content. The absence of fiber, protein, and water in these foods allows for rapid consumption and digestion, which spikes the reward signals in the brain.
The brain, naturally inclined to favor high-calorie foods for survival, reacts to the refined carbs and fats in ultra-processed foods with a dopamine release that outmatches that of natural foods. This reaction is akin to the response triggered by substances like nicotine and alcohol.
Addressing junk food cravings can be challenging, but it's not impossible. Experts like Nicole Avena, a food addiction specialist, suggest that addiction lies on a continuum, and even without a severe addiction, the excess caloric intake from junk food can lead to significant health issues. To curb these cravings, health professionals recommend strategies such as waiting out the craving waves, avoiding triggers, opting for convenient but healthy packaged foods, and not skipping meals to reduce vulnerability to cravings.
For those like Prager who have struggled with severe junk food addiction, complete abstinence combined with therapy and cutting out refined sugars and flour has proven effective. "My life without [junk food] is just so much better," he says. "I do not feel deprived. I feel lucky that I know that there's something that doesn't work for me, and that when I avoid it, I'm happier."
Rachel Nania, a health care and policy writer for AARP, underscores that while the journey to overcoming junk food addiction may be difficult, it is indeed feasible with the right support and strategies.
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