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Processed Food Addiction Affecting More Americans Then Ever

Processed Food Addiction

Processed Food Addiction Affecting More Americans Then Ever

Processed Food Addiction might not carry the same, er, weight (sorry) as drugs and alcohol, though when we consider the harm it does to Americans, perhaps that should change. Oh, we’re not saying that dropping the Ho-Ho‘s and Ring Dings are as hard as kicking opioids or alcohol. We are though saying that junk food causes just about as much economic damage to our world.

In July of ‘22, the good folks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that obesity costs the U.S. healthcare system nearly $173 billion a year. At the same time, the equally good folks at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that the annual economic impact of substance misuse was estimated to be $249 billion (for alcohol misuse) and $193 billion (for illicit drug use). If we factor in the impact obesity has on the rest of the economy, it’ll certainly bound up to around even. At the very least, the weight of all that processed food will surely add up to no good.

But why? How does something as innocuous-sounding as processed food addiction even come close to alcohol and drug addiction? Well, physiology of course. And the bright minds at Scientific American know just how to sum it all up:

“Obesity may be caused by hedonic overeating that hijacks the brain’s reward networks. Like addictive drugs, overeating creates a feedback loop in the brain’s reward centers—the more you consume, the more you crave, and the harder it is for you to satisfy that craving.”

Feedback Loops

Sound familiar? Well, if you’ve ever had a problem with drugs or alcohol it most certainly sounds familiar. Eerily familiar. And if you’ve ever had a problem with alcohol or drugs you’ll also know just how difficult it is to get off that “feedback loop.” Our brains seem built for reward; and the more reward we provide those confounded things, the more they crave.

And the more they require. Anyone who’s ever suffered from addiction knows how quickly our brains become accustomed to those rewards. They’ll also know how quickly those brains will demand to be rewarded simply for doing the day-to-day. That same endemic need happens to the processed food addict. After all, aren’t their brains also being rewarded with chemicals?

Of course they are.

It’s Not a Snack Attack

Nobody gets in a bad mood when they can’t have a carrot. Nobody with any sense anyway. Same goes for those with a yen for apples. You may crave a certain vegetable or fruit, but you’ll hardly throw a fit when your significant other ate the last carrot or apple.

Not so with processed food. Not only do processed food addicts get mad when they don’t have their favorite fix, but they can even get violent. In fact, couple have been known to break-up over one partner’s propensity to eat the other’s snacks.

It’s not about having a mere snack attack. Not even close. No matter how many Saturday Night Live skits it might recall, how “crazy delicious” Mr. Pibb and Red Vines really may be, or how funny Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell are in joking about it. Taken in combo the two could prove to be severely harmful. (And we don’t mean Samberg and Parnell either.).

In other words, while it’s tempting to joke about processed food addiction. Or at least to belittle it in some way. Again, the chemistry suggests we do otherwise. In fact, it pretty much insists that we do.


(While we’ll refrain from getting into the longstanding Twizzlers vs Red Vines fight, some folks will claim Red Vines are “better for you” than Twizzlers because the 110+ year-old company only uses corn syrup, wheat flour, citric acid, artificial flavor, and red 40. While the company did introduce the “GMO-free” Red Vines Made Simple line in 2017, and now uses only five “simple” ingredients, made with only five simple ingredients, with real sugar and with colors and flavors from natural sources. The SNL short though dates to 2006, so Shamberg and Parnell couldn’t have known about the potentially healthier alternative.)

Processed Food Addiction

Where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with Linda Searing’s Washington Post piece “13 percent of Americans over 50 are addicted to processed foods.” That’s what got us on to this subject, so that’s where we’ll end.

Searing’s, well, searing look relied on a report from the University of Michigan’s ongoing National Poll on Healthy Aging. Regular readers will know how much we revere the Wolverines’ brain trust, whether it’s the Institute for Social Research, the Addiction Center, or its School of Public Health. We especially revere their work with those who’ve been around a minute. So when we spotted a piece from one of our favorite papers employing more of the University’s findings, well, we got right with it.

Good that we did too. Because that led us down a rabbit hole we might have otherwise ignored. And from the numbers reported here, we would’ve ignored it at our gang’s peril.

The Findings

“Thirteen percent of the over-50 population, or about 1 in 8 people over 50, cannot control their consumption of highly processed foods,” writes Searing, out of the gate. And, well, we were hooked.

By “highly processed foods”, of course, Searing means “sweet or salty snacks, fatty foods and sugary drinks.” In other words, not just Mr. Pibb and Red Vines and the like (or Ring Dings and Ho-Ho’s), but all their salty brethren as well. Worse, Searing stated that the report found nearly half (44%) of those surveyed came back positive for at least one symptom of processed food addiction.

The most common symptoms were intense cravings, along with unsuccessful attempts to cut back on consumption and signs of withdrawal, such as irritability, trouble concentrating and headaches.

It goes beyond bad moods though – well beyond. Indeed, those with a processed food food addiction also reported distress or problems in their daily life caused by their eating behavior.

The good news (if you can call it that) was that though the tested ages ranged from 50 through 80, processed food addiction was more common among those aged 50 to 64.

But before all you young whipper-snappers ride off on your high horse, remember processed foods have the capacity to trigger the release of dopamine on par with alcohol and nicotine. That means you too are just a few feel-goods away from over-stuffing your face. You may also want to remember, that these 50-64 year-olds used to be the same age as you. And it’s a safe bet to say they weren’t all always overweight.

Addiction is Addiction: Processed Food & Otherwise

Healing Properties reminds everyone that addiction is addiction. That processed food addiction can often be as harmful as any other kind of addiction. Processed food addiction also often comes in tandem with drug or alcohol addiction, and when it does – look out! Because the weight of multiple addiction demands serious medical treatment. (And that’s not a pun either!)

So if you or someone you love needs help, please call SAMHSA’s helpline for the closest treatment center near you. And if that doesn’t work, then call us. We’ll help get you sorted. Then we’ll get you ready to segue back to into this great, big wonderful world of ours, without the weight of any kind of addiction.

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