Women Who Face Food Insecurity Could Be More Prone to Addiction to Highly Processed Food

According to a new study by Elsevier, women who experience food insecurity (a state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food) frequently have more symptoms of food addiction. This can include binge eating, compulsive eating, and failed attempts at refraining from these behaviors, including withdrawal.

For those who experience food insecurity, there are limitations on access to healthy food in adequate amounts. Lack of access comes down to not having healthy stores or restaurants nearby (living in a food desert), lack of money to afford healthier options, lack of transportation options, and/or lack of nutrition education. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and other whole foods, which are high in nutritional value.

Conversely, those who experience food insecurity tend to have easier access to cheaper, highly processed foods filled with large amounts of salt, sugar, fat, and refined ingredients and contain very little nutrients. The salt, sugar, and fat in these processed foods produce addictive qualities – they trigger the reward response in the brain, setting up an addictive eating cycle.

Lindsey Parnarouskis, MS, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, explains, “An emerging line of research suggests that highly processed foods can trigger addictive processes that can lead to a compulsive pattern of overeating, with significant physical and mental health consequences. We know that individuals with food insecurity are more likely to live in an environment dominated by these highly processed foods and are more heavily targeted by the food industry… We hypothesized that individuals with food insecurity might be at greater risk for highly processed food addiction, but no one had previously investigated that.”

This study looked at the data from two previous studies, one on metabolism and stress in low-income pregnant women in California and another later study on low-income families in Michigan and the intersection of food insecurity, childhood weight gain, and maternal weight gain.

Measurement Tools:

Food insecurity was measured using the US Household Food Security Module, which looks at how frequently one experiences food insecurity. This could include financial worries, such as whether or not the families could afford to buy more food before food has been eaten or having to reduce meal sizes to save food for later.

Food addiction was measured by the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS), which uses disorder criteria defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and adapts it for highly processed food.

The study found that households with more food insecurity also reported more food addiction and addictive behaviors when compared with individuals who identified as more food secure. Pregnant women who lived in food-insecure households reported 21% more symptoms of food addiction, and caregivers reported 56% more.

“A key strength of the study is that we observed consistent associations across two distinct samples of low-income female adults with a high prevalence of food insecurity… Despite data collected in different geographic regions, at different periods, and different stages of parenthood or caregiving, the similarity of the associations suggests that this link between food insecurity and food addiction is concerning and deserves further continued investigation.” – Cindy W. Leung, ScD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
One tip researchers suggest is to focus on balance, rather than “good” and “bad” or “healthy vs. “unhealthy.” Balance can be created by establishing holistic ways to care for oneself – the focus should not solely be on food, but rest, play, mental health, self-care, hobbies, and creativity.

Children can be taught to pay attention to their body’s cues around food (what makes them feel good vs. not so good, or when they are hungry vs. full). It’s also helpful to consider language around food, emphasizing health rather than weight, shape, or size.

Another tip is paying attention to your behavior and attitude toward food and body image. The words parents use can be very powerful, even if not directed at children. This includes how parents refer to themselves or other people. Do you compliment people when they lose weight? Do you make comments about other people’s bodies you see on T.V.? Do you put down your own appearance?

A child’s view of their bodies is heavily influenced by what their parents say. It can be tricky when even positive comments can backfire. Children can become fixated on looking a certain way to feel loved, accepted, or better about themselves. Rather than focusing on appearance, experts suggest focusing on a child’s content, meaning, skills, personality, and unique gifts.

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