Addicted to fast food? New poll shows 13% of older Americans meet criteria

ATLANTA — New research shows many people are addicted to processed foods such as ice cream, pizza and chips which can lead to several illnesses.

Nearly half of the adults surveyed showed at least one sign of addiction to processed foods. Most of them were women.

Hamburgers, soda, and energy drinks are all highly processed foods and highly addictive too.

“Is this an addiction for me? I don’t know. I’d call it a craving,” said Channel 2 consumer advisor Clark Howard.

He is an admitted processed food lover.

“I mean, you know, we as humans crave what tastes good to us, and this tastes great to me,” Howard told Channel 2 investigative reporter Sophia Choi.

The two sat down for lunch. Howard ate a hot dog and Choi ate fried chicken.

“I have a terrible diet,” Choi said.

Howard changed his diet after a cancer scare.

“The only green I ever liked before was money. And then I had to learn that there were food groups that were really good, that were green,” Howard said.

He cut down on processed foods and lost 50 pounds. But Howard still craves and eats them --including ice cream -- just not as much.

“You’re not getting between me and vanilla caramel fudge. That’s the one item… that’s the one thing on which I cannot compromise,” said Howard.


Like Howard, a lot of Americans can’t kick the cravings.

Channel 2 Action News found there is a medical reason for that.

Researchers said dopamine in the brain starts pumping even before that first bite, triggered by the smell or even a fast-food logo.

“It really spikes the reward and motivation systems in the brain in a way that truly mimics what we see with ethanol, like alcoholic beverages or with nicotine, like in cigarettes,” said Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Michigan.

That is by design, according to a new national poll on healthy aging by the University of Michigan.

“For decades, big tobacco was the biggest producer and marketer of processed food in the world. So, it really is the same playbook just with a new substance,” said Gearhardt.

Just like cigarettes, researchers found processed foods can lead to all sorts of illnesses including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

The poll randomly surveyed 2,163 people between 50 and 80 years old and found 13% met the criteria for addiction with at least two symptoms, like intense cravings, the inability to cut down, and signs of withdrawal.

Double the women met the criteria compared to men. Women between 50 and 64 years old had it the worst.

“Clearly people aren’t going to jail you know, breaking in to get their milkshake fix. They’re not dying of an overdose, but about 300,000 people a year are dying from preventable disease,” Gearhardt said.

Scientists said the earlier people start eating processed food the stronger the addiction.

“We see that over half of children’s calorie intake in the United States is from these low nutritional value but highly, intensely rewarding, highly processed foods,” Gearhardt said.

Howard and Choi both grew up eating fried and processed foods with little nourishment. They are packed with plenty of calories from salt, sugar, and fats.

Doctors recommend nutritional counseling to help manage the addiction.

Howard is well on his way with daily limits and a cheat day.

“I was a low F in how I used to eat, and now I’d say I’m probably a C-, which for a Southern boy, that’s real progress,” Howard said.

Because so many people are addicted to processed foods, researchers want doctors to start screening for it with the same questions used in this poll.


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