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 21.

    I'm surprised the author isn't choosing to address eating disorders here, esp. bulimia. I had it for years, spending upwards of £30 a day on food, and there's no question in my mind that it was an intense physical addiction to the rush of consuming tens of thousands of calories and the release of getting rid.
    It is possible to admit a physical role in addiction without loss of responsibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    An HYS to bash the fatties? The last demographic we're all allowed to hate?

    You don't say.

    This country's lazy media? Not fit for purpose. Stop stirring up the mouth breathers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Addiction has become such a tiresome buzz word to absolve personal responsibility for just about anything; "I'm addicted to shoe shopping!" being another ridiculous notion. I suppose none of this behaviour is surprising though considering that our economy is built on consumerism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    It is not helpful to use the word addiction, if that is but one of the possible underlying causes. Neither is it helpful for the media to go on about it, making the obese the new target for people who cannot anymore discriminate on grounds of sexuality or race, but still want to feel superior...

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I agree completely it is used too freely and often in the wrong context.

    I see the same thing with people being labelled/called/saying they are depressed. Often they are just unhappy in their life. Don't get me wrong depression is a very serious condition the phrase is just used to freely. Continued unhappiness does lead to depression but often has factors inside the persons sphere of influence

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    A simple rule for healthy eating.

    If you cant catch it, kill it or grow it don't eat it.

    IN- fruit, veg, beans, eggs, meat and fish.

    OUT- cakes, chocolate, cheese, pizza, turkey twizzlers ect

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Yes, we are hard-wired to eat as much as we can, because food used to be scarce, but now it is plentiful and there is this thing call self-control that responsible people have, which aids in not over-eating. Self-control is also useful in not being violent, not getting into debt etc. etc. Are we now saying that lack of self-control is a disease? If so, god help us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Wouldn't it be nice if BBC 'journalists' checked what they wrote or had proof readers??? Come on guys, you're supposed to be an elite!!! This is tatty!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    "I'm big boned"
    "It's my glands"
    "I've a slow metabolism"
    "I've an food addiction"

    But the excuse "I'm greedy, that's why I eat so much and hence why I'm fat" is not an excuse you often hear.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    NO, anything which provides an opportunity to gain sympathy rather than address the real problem can only be detrimental.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I'm addicted to food. I can honestly say that not a day goes by when I don't eat some food; if I didn't I'd get some horrible withdrawal symptoms. Us foodheads call it being "hungy".

    Fortunately, I am not completely lost to my addiction, and can eat only what I need to prevent slipping into withdrawal. It really isn't that difficult... Is it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    It's a huge assumption that people who are fat eat too much.

    I'm not fat because I eat too much, I'm fat because I drink too much.


  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I don't think fat people are addicted to food any more or less than thin people are addicted to calling fat people lazy slobs and pretending they are somehow superior for having different vices to eating.
    Or non smokers are addicted to calling smokers stupid cancer sacks.

    etc etc etc and so on... but I do so look forward to reading the obvious fruits of ignorance this HYSteria will bring today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I think I'm addicted to food, I get this horrible feeling if I stop eating it may eventually lead to death.

    Air too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I used to like the odd cake or two walking by the bakery, but as part of a simple diet, ie I just cut out things that are bad for you, I'm not tempted.

    When you eat one cake, you probably have to walk 5 miles to burn it off, I would rather not eat the cake!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    If you eat too much you get fat.

    Dont pretend anything else. Dont waste a single pound of precious NHS funds on people who abuse themselves by over-eating. End of story.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    It may well be useful because your appetite lies to you... always wants more because over millions of years evolution food was scare for much of the year so you had to stock when you got the chance & that is how our appetites still work... simply cannot loose weight without feeling hungry...

    ...your appetite demands more even when your body doesn't need it...


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