About 13 percent of older people in the U.S. show signs of addiction to highly processed foods and drinks, according to a national poll on healthy aging conducted by the University of Michigan, involving those aged 50 to 80. Highly processed foods include sweetened beverages, potato chips, and fast food, the poll noted.

To meet the criteria for addiction, respondents needed to have two or more symptoms out of 11 in the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Those symptoms include intense cravings, inability to cut down on consumption despite a desire to do so, feelings of distress about food choices, and signs of withdrawal when these foods were replaced by healthier options.

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Using measures like these may be helpful for identifying people who could benefit from nutrition counseling or programs that address addictive eating, according to Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D., a University of Michigan psychologist who led the research.

“Our brains respond as strongly to highly processed foods—especially those highest in sugar, simple starches, and fat—as they do to tobacco, alcohol, and other addictive substances,” she told Bicycling. “Just as with smoking and drinking, we need to identify and reach out to those who have entered unhealthy patterns of use and support them in developing a healthier relationship to food.”

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