A better understanding of food addiction is needed to help people live healthier lives, say researchers who have found that one in eight Americans aged over 50 show signs of food cravings and addition.

A poll found that in particular, older adults who are overweight or with poor mental health or isolation, have higher rates of food addition.

It has prompted calls for improved knowledge and better treatment around food behaviour, with an approach similar to helping those addicted to alcohol and cigarettes.

According to the findings, around 13% of people who are aged between 50 and 80 have signs of being addicted to ‘junk food’, with much higher rates seen in women.

Just over 2,100 people were asked a series of questions about addiction indicators, including intense cravings, whether they are able to cut down their consumption of processed food, and whether they experience withdrawal symptoms.

University of Michigan psychologist Dr Ashley Gearhardt said: “The word addiction may seem strong when it comes to food, but research has shown that 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.

“Just as with smoking or 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 with food.”

The research team believes that some of the questions they posed should form part of a screening process used by doctors to identify those who may have a problem so they can be signposted to support programmes or nutrition counselling.

Poll director Associate Professor Jeffrey Kullgren said: “Clinicians need a better understanding of how food addiction and problematic eating intertwines with their patients’ physical and mental health, including chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.

“We need to understand that cravings and behaviours around food are rooted in brain chemistry and heredity, and that some people may need additional help just as they would to quit smoking or drinking.”

Experiencing intense cravings was the symptom most likely to be reported among the study group, with 24% saying that at least once a week, they had such a strong desire to eat a processed food that it was all they could think about.

In addition, around 12% said their eating habits cause them distress several times a week.

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