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 61.

    "20. mwng

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

    Don't forget people with incontinence, northeners and white males. All fair game for the BBC's 'comedy'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    I used to become "lazy" and "greedy" every winter and my weight went up. Is that addiction, or a lack of willpower? Neither, it is Seasonal Affective Disorder, treatable with simple light therapy.

    Our appetites are governed by hormones and neurotransmitter levels. Fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Following on from 'big-boned', the very latest excuse for fat people to blame something else on their condition:)

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    "What about breakfast?"
    "You've already had it."
    "We've had one, yes. What about second breakfast?"
    "I don't think he knows about second breakfast, Pip."
    "What about elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper? He knows about them, doesn't he?"
    "I wouldn't count on it."

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I don't believe there is such a thing as addiction - it's simply something you like doing and can stop at any time if you're determined. I stopped drinking completely 20 years ago, and stopped smoking 10 years ago, both things I thought I was addicted to.

    There are numerous people who kick heroin, and you can't get more 'addictive' than that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    "its nothing to do with us so leave them alone they are happy"- great,except it DOES affect those around them,who have to pick up the pieces or pay for when these obese types are ill or need treatment.

    90% of over-weight people are so due to lack of self-control,exercise and essentially laziness.If the food wasn't there,they wouldn't be fat, end of story.They need discipline/teaching,not excuses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Food addiction is real. Childish remarks such as dont eat so much or excercise more wont solve this medical condition. The article is explaining that over-eating is being blamed on food addiction by those who are over eating. Over eating is simply resolved. Food addiction is not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Find it interesting that 500 years ago, fat people were viewed as desirable and were often at the top of society.

    Now it costs money to be thin (expensive diet, gym fees, beauty regime, holiday tan etc).

    Fascinating how desirability has been turned on its head.

    As with many things in life, it's down to survival of the fittest - if things are too comfortable, nature has a way of biting back

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    @24 Frithrabbit - When it comes to mental illness it's even more important to use the correct language. Mis-using terms like 'addiction' slows their recovery and just helps to stigmatise mental health issues more than they already are!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    It's too broad and will result in wasted money and confusion.
    It's very clear that people can damage their health by eating badly.
    It's also clear that the types of, and way that food is consumed and presented is very different for different income groups. Lower income families consume more sugar and less fresh food. This costs the UK health system a great deal and is a government concern.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Drug Companies will always try to name any adverse situation a disease.

    They then try to sell a pill to "cure" the said disease.

    It is the largest money-making scam on the planet today.

    If a fat person is ever discovered who didn't get that way becasue they had eaten too much then please show us.

    It can take years to become overweight and yet people expect to lose it in a few weeks.

    Get real.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    I have gone through a phase of stress eating which led to obligatory weight gain. It wasn't an addiction but wasn't greed either, I was simply having an awful time and that was the only thing that brought comfort.

    Once my life picked up I ate normally again but weight comes off far less easily than it goes on so I'm still not back to my old slender self yet.

    Judge not less ye be judged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    The idea that mind and body are separate things is a religious hangover in our culture. Fat people are given judgemental labels such as lazy or greedy, as if it was a moral or spiritual problem!

    We are controlled by hormones and environmental factors far more than most would admit. The food industry knows this which is why supermarkets are full of high-profit-margin junk food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Having done the 5:2 Fasting program successfully for over a year now the one thing that has struck me most is the lack of calorific understanding within society. Consume more calories than you burn-off and you will put on weight, so for the many this is not Food Addiction, its just lack of awareness or an excuse. We need to educate folks on calorie content of basic food stuffs

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    It's not an illness, it's simple lack of willpower and accounatbility. Typical New Labour drivel - "Oh it's not your fault, don't worry, you have an illness". Stop eating so much muck - fresh fruit and vegetables are more delicious than any monosodium glutamate riddled snacks that large people always seem to want to eat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    If we stuck to "nutritious" food with no calories, we would soon enough notice. There's some pretty silly things said about the nature of good and bad foods.

    There are things we should be looking at, such as the use of sugars and fats in manufactured foods. Our remote ancestors didn't have the sugar-loaded fizzy drinks that we do. But they needed food. Food cannot be an addiction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Im overweight yet I eat far less than my Dad ever did and he was thin as a rake. He used to eat a Full English every day,take sandwiches to work,eat his tea then go the pub. Difference of course is that he walked three miles to work and back and did physical work 8 hours a day whereas I drive everywhere and sit on my backside.Our working lives have changed a lot but our diets haven't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Obviously not ALL obesity is food addiction, I have never heard anyone suggest that, but I'm sure it exists I ask myself this though - in people desperate to lose weight, who try everything yet fail to do so, despite being miserable, there must be something other than the ridiculous 'lazy' argument. Also, I am average weight, my sister is skinny and our larger friend is far fitter than both of us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I think snack-type foods can be addictive, depending on your choice of definition, and are undoubtedly consumed out of habit. It's so easy to have that bag of crisps in the pub, to complement the other addiction, or a cake for elevenses. When one stops, there is that initial feeling of deprivation (I used to do both the above), but after a few days the habit is broken. Just like smoking!

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck....

    If you do something, keep doing it regardless and cannot stop doing it, that is addiction. Be that sex, Heroin, eating, exercise, reading Jane Austen and so on.

    Once you identify the issue you can then start to resolve it.


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