Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Are You Addicted to Junk Food?

1 in 8 older adults are hooked on ultraprocessed food. Here’s how it's affecting your brain and body

spinner image junk food hanging form sharp fish hooks the foods are pizza a cookie soda fast food french fries a donut and a cinnamon bun

Michael Prager doesn’t go near junk food.

After he eats a frozen pizza, candy bar or packaged pastry, his head will throb. A sheen of sweat will appear on his face and body. Then, a craving will hit.

“When my body has finally gone through it all, it starts saying, Hey, why can’t I have some more? Let’s have some more. Let’s have some more,” he says.  

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

Prager, 65, a retired journalist and author in Arlington, Massachusetts, is not alone. One in 8 adults ages 50 to 80 show signs of addiction to ultraprocessed foods, or what we call junk food — sugary sodas, salty chips and fatty fast food — according to a 2023 report from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, sponsored by AARP. Nearly half of older adults experience at least one symptom of junk food addiction, such as intense cravings, an inability to stop eating once they start, or withdrawal symptoms when they try to resist.

“In the same way that taking that first sip of alcohol can prime [some people] to want more,­ we see that same thing with these foods,” says Ashley Gearhardt, a coauthor on the poll and director of the Food and Addiction Science & Treatment Lab at the University of Michigan.

Addictive by design

Minimally Processed Foods

  • Steel-cut oats
  • Salmon filet
  • Barley
  • Fresh fruit
  • Potatoes

Highly Processed Foods

  • Sugary cereal
  • Frozen fish sticks
  • Canned ravioli
  • Fruit juice
  • Baked potato chips

Nearly all foods go through some level of processing — beans are dried or canned; spinach is washed and bagged. But the term “ultraprocessed” refers to foods that have been altered by the addition of super-flavoring agents to create irresistible tastes; preservatives to prolong shelf life; food dyes to alter hues; and refined fats and carbohydrates that have been stripped of fiber and other nutrients to improve their texture and appearance.

Sweet, salty, crunchy, creamy fare: From candy bars to chips, from cookies to pastries, these foods have been created to be hyper-palatable so that you’ll come back for more. And it’s easy to do just that, considering they’re all around us. They line checkout counters in gas stations and grocery stores, and they’re stuffed in vending machines at high schools and hospitals.

“Basically, the whole environment is set up to induce craving [junk food],” says Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, a neuroscientist at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, who studies how the brain guides our food choices.

And they’re cheap. “Healthy food is so much more expensive, and there are people who can’t afford it,” says addiction specialist Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Federal data shows that nearly 19 million people in the U.S. lack access to fresh, healthy foods. “If you don’t have any choices, what do you do?” Volkow says.

The ultraprocessed body

Today, almost 60 percent of the calories consumed by Americans comes from ultraprocessed food. That figure may help explain why the U.S. has the world’s highest obesity rate among high-income countries.

A pivotal 2019 study from the National Institutes of Health found that participants who ate a diet chock full of processed foods — packaged muffins, frozen fish sticks and canned ravioli — ended up eating more food and gaining more weight in a two-week window than participants on a more natural diet — oats, fish filets and barley — even though the meals and snacks prepared contained a similar number of calories and other nutrients.


AARP® Vision Plans from VSP™

Exclusive vision insurance plans designed for members and their families

See more Insurance offers >

And a study in 2023 found that even when people eat the same number of calories, those who eat ultraprocessed foods over high-fiber foods absorb more calories — an average of 116 additional calories per day.

One reason: Our gut microbiomes, made up of the microorganisms living in our digestive tracts, consume calories too, but ultraprocessed foods are digested so quickly that their calories never make it to the large intestine, home of the microbiome. Some experts suspect that the chemical additives in ultraprocessed foods cause disruptions in the microbiome and in the hormone-creating endocrine system as well, potentially explaining the link between these foods and weight gain.

Your brain on junk food

5 Signs of Junk Food Addiction

  1. Intense cravings
  2. Inability to resist certain foods
  3. Feeling sluggish or tired from overeating
  4. Signs of withdraw (headaches, irritability, etc.) when you abstain
  5. Feeling like you need more in order to get the same effect

The brain is hardwired to favor high-calorie foods — it’s an evolutionary trait that helped keep humans alive long before the age of grocery stores. The smell or taste of something sweet or fatty floods the body with feel-good chemicals like dopamine, Gearhardt says. But, she adds, that system was designed to get us to eat more nutrient-dense foods, like olives and raspberries. “Our brain never evolved to handle foods like those that dominate the current food environment,” she says.

That’s because refined carbs and fat found in highly processed foods — and often found in combination — trigger a release of dopamine at levels that surpass what is seen when, say, an apple is digested. In fact, several experts in the field say the response is more like what we see with nicotine and alcohol.

“The speed in which a substance hits your body is really key in determining its addictive potential,” Gearhardt explains. And because many ultraprocessed foods lack protein, fiber and water, they can be devoured and digested quickly, rushing the reward.

Curbing the cravings

As with alcohol, cigarettes, even some drugs, not everyone who indulges in junk food becomes addicted.

“We’ve learned a lot about what addiction is over the last 20 years, and it isn’t something that you either have or you don’t have. It’s more of a continuum,” says Nicole Avena, a food addiction expert and associate professor of neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

spinner image membership-card-w-shadow-192x134


Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Still, it doesn’t take a serious addiction to experience the negative health effects of junk food. “While it might not be taking over your life, it only takes about 200 or 300 extra calories a day to see risk for excessive weight gain and diet-related disease,” Gearhardt says.

These foods have also been linked to numerous health issues that plague the 50-plus population, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and dementia

For people looking to dial back their intake, small steps can make a big impact:

  • Urge surf. Cravings build, but they eventually peak and peter out — just like a wave, says Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist psychologist Shenelle A. Edwards-Hampton. Next time you get a craving, try waiting it out. “Over time, the height of the waves will get lower, and they’ll come fewer and farther between,” she adds.
  • Avoid triggers. Become aware of what environments or situations trigger your food cravings, such as binge-watching TV, and if possible, avoid them.
  • Pursue convenience. Packaged doesn’t have to mean unhealthy. Lentils come pre-steamed; brown rice can be cooked in one minute in the microwave. “You could put those together, and that’s a meal,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a dietician at the Cleveland Clinic. Canned beans, frozen vegetables and frozen fruit are other healthy shortcuts.
  • Don’t skip meals. Hunger will make you more vulnerable to cravings. So will giving up foods you enjoy. Aim for three minimally processed meals a day, Gearhardt says, and make sure the foods on your plate are ones you like. “It’s about finding pleasure from your food, just not in such a jacked-up way,” she adds.

While difficult, overcoming a more severe addiction to junk food is possible. Support groups like Overeaters Anonymous can benefit some, Gearhardt says. So can cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy that emphasizes coping skills, and nutritional counseling, which can help map out healthy alternatives to ultraprocessed foods.

And then there’s abstinence. That’s what eventually worked for Prager, who, along with seeking therapy, decided to cut out refined sugar and flour. “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.”

Are all ultraprocessed foods equal?

There’s no doubt that limiting your intake of ultraprocessed foods can help your health. But a new observational study suggests that not all ultraprocessed foods are created equal, and some foods may be more of a hazard than others.

Research published May 8 in the journal BMJ found that people who had a higher intake of processed foods had a higher risk of dying early, compared with people who ate the least amount of processed foods. And certain foods were more associated with this increased risk, including:

  • Processed meats
  • Dairy-based desserts
  • Sugary cereals and other processed breakfast foods
  • Sugary and artificially sweetened beverages

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?