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Women experiencing food insecurity at greater risk of developing addiction to high-processed foods, says new study

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3 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
Girl works at a computer and eats fast food.

New research suggests women facing food insecurity are at great risk of developing an addiction to highly processed foods.

The study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that people living in food-insecure households in parts of the US were more likely to show food-addiction symptoms towards high-processed produce than those living in food-secure households.

To carry out the research, the authors used data collected from two earlier studies. The first was the Maternal Adiposity, Metabolism and Stress Study (MAMAS) conducted between August 2011 and June 2013, which analysed an eight-week mindfulness-based intervention on gestational weight gain in low-income pregnant women in California. The women analysed were aged 18 to 45, classified as overweight or obese according to their BMI, and had a household income 500% smaller than the US federal poverty guidelines.

The second set of data came from the Family Food Study (FFS), which took place between September 2018 and December 2019. It assessed the associations between food insecurity, child weight gain and maternal weight gain in low-income families in Michigan. Participants were adult, female-identifying caregivers for children aged between eight and 10-years-old.

Researchers used the US Household Food Security Module to measure food security, and the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) which was adapted to measure food addiction specifically with high-processed foods.

Within the MAMAS study, pregnant women experiencing food insecurity had 21% higher food addiction symptoms. FFS data showed female caregivers living in food-insecure homes had 56% higher food addiction symptoms than those who didn’t have to worry about being able to access and afford healthy food.

Highly processed foods that contain a lot of refined carbohydrates and fats tend to be cheaper than more nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. This makes them more accessible to families experiencing food insecurity, according to the report.

The authors also noted that past research shows highly processed foods can activate neural reward responses, making people more likely to want to consume these foods on a regular basis despite their low nutritional value.

According to the study, these results show “that food insecurity is also associated with an addictive pattern of eating that resembles substance use disorders.”

First author and doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, Lindsey Parnarouskis, said: “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.”

According to Parnarouskis, this study is one of the first of its kind to look at the links between risks of addiction to highly processed foods and food insecurity, but more research is needed to test other samples across the broader US population.

In an editorial attached to the published study, researchers highlighted the need to complete further qualitative and quantitative research of the measures assessing eating behaviours to see if they produce reliable results across other populations.

They also recommended that future research on psychometric validation in populations with food insecurity should consider “the complex intersection of variables”, like race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and disability.

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