Is 'addiction' an excuse to overeat?

Sweet things Are we addicted to these - or just plain greedy?

"Food addiction" is becoming a popular term to explain overeating. But in this Scrubbing Up, Professor John Blundell from the Institute of Psychological Sciences at the University of Leeds warns the term is being used far too freely.

Some have likened food addiction to drug addiction, and then used this term to associate it with overeating, and as a clinical explanation for the obesity epidemic, implicating millions of people.

The use of the term food addiction is a step towards medicalisation and implies that normal human social behaviour is pathological.

Forms of eating therefore become an illness. This attitude is not helpful and has huge implications for the way in which people view their own behaviour and their lives.

The concept of food addiction comes from a combination of experimental data, anecdotal observations, scientific claims, personal opinions, deductions and beliefs.

It is an over-simplification of a very complex set of behaviours.

The existing evidence fails to define the precise characteristics of the actual foods concerned or the eating environment that underlies the assumed addiction risk.

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I am concerned that many people may potentially latch on to the concept of food addiction as an excuse to explain their overeating”

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This is in contrast to drug addiction, where the molecule is identified and its pharmacological effect on the brain is characterised.

Animal studies have shown changes to specific brain regions in those given a sugary diet - and human brain scans show activation of reward systems in the same part of the brain when sweet tastes are consumed.

Therefore, it is not surprising that reward centres are activated when sweet foods are consumed, as we know that the reward circuits in the brain have been established through evolution as signalling systems that control our appetite.

Many stimuli influence these areas of the brain and, in addition, there is an intrinsic drive to consume carbohydrate-rich foods to satisfy a basic metabolic need of the brain.

Sweetness is a major signal for such foods but the science has not yet assessed this fully and much more work is needed before we could say that food is addictive.

'Just an excuse'

Attributing food addiction as the single cause underlying the development of obesity, despite the existence of numerous other very plausible explanations, is unhelpful, particularly for those trying to live more healthy lives.

I am concerned that many people may potentially latch on to the concept of food addiction as an excuse to explain their overeating - the premise that it's "not my fault" and therefore, "I can't help it".

This removes the personal responsibility they should feel and could act on - and they infer that their eating is a form of disease.

Food addiction may offer an appealing explanation for some people but the concept could seriously hinder an individual's capacity for personal control.

Binge eating disorder does exist - but it is a rare clinical condition affecting fewer than 3% of obese people.

Sufferers have a strong compulsion to eat, which persists alongside the sense of a loss of control.

Addiction-like food behaviour may be a component of the severe and compulsive form of binge eating disorder.

But this condition does not explain the huge rise in obesity we have seen across the population.

Binge eating is not a key cause of obesity and, therefore, in the context of mass public health, is not a major concern.

What we need is a calm and composed analysis of what the words food addiction really mean so that people can make informed deductions about the causes of their own behaviour.

If you are concerned that you may have an eating disorder and would like to speak with someone about it, you could contact the charity beat on 08456341414.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    I guess I just dont get it I am slim and yes I exercise one hour everyday of my life and have done so for most of my life and because I was fit I survived a very traumatic Health scare and I thank the Lord every day that I can still enjoy exercising because a healthy body is a healthy mind

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    the exercise argument is poor. thin people arent doing 1hr ex a day. we know that isnt true. fat people years ago were generally those with genuine metabolism problems. they are a small % of population.

    for society as a whole, obesity is recent. so what changed? i think attempts to make all foods healthy by reducing fat, and thus adding sugar, sweetners & salt for flavour is the starting point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    Louise 512. Not all the morbidly obese can exercise,many have wrecked their joints by their weight.But all can stop or reduce eating for a while. An 800 to 1000 calorie a day diet cures T2 diabetes by reversing insulin resistance. & the NHS DOES help a lot. Diet sheets,gastric bypasses, free exercise classes & weightwatchers groups,both commercial & in clinics,fat reduction pills.Spoilt for choice

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    One issue that has yet to be addressed.

    There are a lot of people making large profits enticing other people to consume 'ingredients' which do them no favours nor the health services !!!

    Then of course you have the advertising industry !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    we dont know enough about the subject.

    carbs like cereal, bread, potatoes & rice were part of most of my meals. after some reading, i limited myself to 80 grams of carbs a day. i lost 4st (2lbs a week) with little muscle loss. it was like a miracle cure. if i exercise, i eat a few more carbs to fuel that exercise.

    But, although no problems yet, my diet puts me at odds with the doc's advice.


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