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 41.

    Q: Do these jeans make my bum look big?

    A: No the Bucket of Chicken you had for lunch and the 5 cakes you had for a snack before your large fish supper you had for Dinner made your bum big, Now your bum is stretching them jeans!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    children are labelled autistic...when it is simply bad behaviour"

    You were doing OK until that bit.

    I've a nephew who is autistic. You'd have to be brain damaged yourself not to see that he has a real affliction. And He isn't badly behaved.

    Suggest you spend some time with autistic kids before making such stupid comments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Whenmentions they struggle with this, there's an instant response of "you must be lazy and greedy" which is usually rubbish. Would they tell someone with PTSD "relax and get over it?" We treat other well known eating disoders (anorexia, etc) with proper counselling, why not this? People who don't have the issues always say that everyone else is just like them, but not trying hard enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    if people want to eat to much who are we to complain, its there life so let them get on with it I say, to much of the nanny state here, its not rocket science, if you eat to much you will get fat its your choice but its nothing to do with us so leave them alone they are happy

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    If this is an addiction why do we seem to allow every local shop to reopen as a "supplier" ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The reality is that the diet consumed by the poorest in society is not the one we are evolutionarily adapted too. High simple carbohydrate foods - chips, bread, sugar, beers, sweets were not available to our 'hunter gatherer' ancestors' and it is these foods which have the lowest cost per calorie with the lowest nutritional value. Hence the reason the poorest are often the most obese.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Fat man here.

    Food addiction is a laugh. I eat as much as I do because I love eating. not because I *need* to eat.

    On the other hand, my excessive coffee consumption probably is addiction though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    If people can afford to eat more than they need to sustain their life then by the same token they can afford to pay the costs of NHS treatments for their condition. Would it be too controversial to say that they could also eat less but more healthier food for the same money, but then on the other hand healthy food is far cheaper than high calorie processed food. Clue - it hasn't been processed.

  • Comment number 33.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    The UK has become a state within the USA. You can invade countries, keep most of your population in abject poverty and feed them garbage processed meat but you musn't offend people with inappropriate comments. After all they are your customers. Profits must continue, so bigger doors, seats & re-inforced floors seems the way forward

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    When it gets to the point where you are telling yourself...

    "I'm doing well because I'm taking the stair instead of using the lift at work"...

    Then you don't need to exercise more, you probably just need to move around more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Sugar/food addition is real!
    3 years ago I was 25 stone. I got down to 12.5 just over a year ago. I'm 14.5 now. Loosing the weight was easy compared with keeping it off. I have to avoid sugar much as an alcoholic needs to keep away from alcohol. Just one cake/biscuit will set me off. I can eat a whole box of cakes/biscuits in one go. I don't know why I'm doing it and don't even enjoy it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    It saddens me when people judge fat people as lazy or stupid. Obesity is a complex issue which even some GP's do not understand. Help exists on the NHS for drug and smoking addiction. Thousands of drunk people use A& E and Emergency services each week. Yet Slimming clubs charge a fortune for little return. Be not the judge ...even criminals are entitled to a fair hearing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I'm starting to think in five years time I will be buying my triple choc muffin from a guy on a street corner, while trying to avoid CCTV. Fat people are fat and would do well to take responsibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Its individual choice to eat what you want, exercise as much as you want and be the weight and body shape that comes with that. I don't really care.

    Actions -> Consequences -> Responsibility for those consequences.

    We just need more of the Responsibility part.

    Giving control to external factors ("its not my fault because") is a mind trick so we don't have to face our own actions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I'm sure there are people who are hooked on sugar, people who use 'addiction' as an excuse. There are also a lot of not overweight, apparently healthy looking people who do eat salad and excersise, but have either undiagnosed or untreated eating disorders but cannot get help on the NHS. Docs are only interested if you are either obese or terribly skinny and fail to link other effects on health

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    We live in an age dominated by wooly liberal thinking. No one is responsible for anything anymore, criminals rape because their mother rejected them, aggression is blamed on lack of a father figure, children are labelled autistic or attention deficit disordered when it is simply bad behaviour. The Social Departments & the Legal industry dominate society and have virtually destroyed common sense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    It is a mental illness in some cases and just like any addiction there is more to it than just indulgence. There are underlying problems in peoples lives, confidence issues, sexual problems. Many people below do not understand the issues involved; they are not qualified to make their extreme opinions. A close friend of mine has this disabling condition, she is not fat or bulimic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Habituation.. we eat when we eat and what we eat because we have always done so.

    Not having anything better or more interesting to do so we eat. Eating punctuates our days, just like washing and going to bed.

    Find something better and more interesting to do - and skip meals - break the habit. Go for a long walk in the countryside (and deliberately forget the sandwiches and snacks!)


  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I'd never label every fat person lazy. There are a whole host of genuine conditions (both mental and physical) which can cause weight gain. Laziness and greed are also reasons for people being fat, and I don't class these as illnesses.

    Don't think that it should be assumed that fat people are ill, but can't assume they're not either. To do either without knowing the person is LAZY in itself.


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