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 101.

    No, i think it hides other mental health issues such as depression.

    I find that if I eat a meal that contains all food groups, then I don't crave sweet stuff afterwards. So a reasonable serving of fish, with two or three veg and maybe cheesy mash and then a banana works for me.

    I suspect if people relaxed more about what they ate at mealtimes, they would find themselves snacking a lot less.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    I agree with all of that, especially cake!
    But, should you develop a severe condition as a result of your personal choices, should we be forced to pay for your treatment?

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    I think the real issue is refined sugar addiction, when given up it causes symptoms the same as recreational drug withdrawal. Sugars empty calories are a main cause in making the nation obese, not only does sugar not have ANY nutrients but it actually draws on the body's nutrient stores in order to digest it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    I'm fat. I'm certainly way over weight. Am I poor? No! Am I autistic? No! Am I lazy? Certainly not....

    Then why am I overweight??

    Because I LOVE sweets, cakes, fizzy pop. It all just tastes sooooooo good! Chocolate, pies, fruit cake, marshmallows, jellies....

    Why would I want to stop doing something I enjoy?

    Mmmmmm CAKE!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Fat, debt, unemployed, whatever. Listen up, responsible people are SICK of paying for your fecklessness. Grow up, it's YOUR fault. Stop blaming someone else and looking for what the system can do for you, and start asking what you can do to help yourself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    People have different metabolisms too.
    My friends boy eats over 3000 calories in one meal and is stick-thin.
    My daughter has to stick to less than 1500 to maintain her weight ,but is already very overweight .
    She has a malfunctioning hypothalamus.(it controls appetite,ratio of fat /muscle and metabolism.
    She has been on a calorie -controlled diet since she was born 22 years ago.
    She isn't greedy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    "85. thewinner50 8 Minutes ago
    All a load of absolute codswallop. Get off your backsides and do some exercise. Calories in > Calories out = weight gain. Do something about it."

    Your ignorance is embarrassing. Educate yourself before commenting.
    If it was that simple do you not think fat people would do it? Oh right they are all lazy, greedy simpletons aren't they.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Instead of subsidising people's poor choices, by raking the taxpayer over the coals for their resulting medical illnesses, we promote personal responsibility and demand that people pay for their own choices.

    If people had to wear the financial costs of heart surgery, or diabetes, they'd be more reluctant before engaging in gluttony. We don't need more social engineering from the politburo.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    As seems to be the case with every aspect of life, dieting and weight problems have been turned into an industry. If you can convince people (or better still convince the NHS) it arises from a medical problem out of their control then you can come to the rescue offering costly solutions -diet clubs, drugs, bariatric surgery etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    If "lack of self discipline" is an illness, does that also mean that those with discipline are suffering an opposite "illness".

    There is humungous difference between taking responsibility for ones actions & not doing so.

    Eating food (filling up with energy) is a natural existinal human requirement/necessity, eating too much food is not. Major issue is filling with energy & then not using it

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    More calories in than out,
    you will get very stout.
    More calories out than in,
    you will get very thin.

    It is that simple.

    I don't believe for one minute that eating is an addiction, but even if it were, food addicts could remain slim by doing more exercise.

    Or are some scientists going to claim that fat people are addicted to not exercising? (Which would be the first negative addiction ever.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    The people who say it is all about willpower don't know what they are talking about. You are doing the right thing by exploring different approaches. Go for it and don't worry about what anyone else thinks. Those who feel obliged to pass judgement are blind to their own unpleasant issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Amen Andy C555, I have 2 kids on the spectrum as well as myself...I was very well behaved...people who know nothing about autism apart from Rainman experience shouldn't be commenting on it at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Being fat as nothing to do with addiction and everything to do with bad habits or lack of physical exercise or lack of restrains or a combination of these factors.

    Does it take willpower not to be tempted by eating too much? Yes!
    Does it make is an addiction? No!

    People need to take responsibility for what they eat, nobody it forcing you to eat the whole pack, bucket or bottle!

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    I grew up in the 40/50's. To see a fat person then was a rarity whereas now a large portion of the population is obese. Suddenly, from out of nowhere has appeared a "fatness gene" and its not their fault as it's genetic. Is it the "Mcdonalds gene"?. Now we have an "eating addiction"!
    Its obvious that anyone stuffing themselves with unsuitable food and drink gets fat because its not their fault!

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Maybe the more pertinent question should be: why the BBC feels the need to enable comments on EVERY SINGLE story about obesity and fat people, despite (or more because) knowing full well the sort of hateful, simplistic, entitled responses it will elicit. Sneaky tactic - write a less than complimentary piece about 'the obese' then let the commentariat fill in the rest. Shameful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    All a load of absolute codswallop. Get off your backsides and do some exercise. Calories in > Calories out = weight gain. Do something about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    @25 "children are labelled autistic or attention deficit disordered when it is simply bad behaviour"

    There are many excellent medical professionals out there who would never make that idiotic assumption. It is only made by people who think children should be seen and not heard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    72 "Exercise will cure pretty much any food addiction"

    That's been debunked, even the gyms don't make that claim anymore. The excellent BBC programme "The Men Who Made Us Thin" showed why. I'm a keen runner, and I feel great on it, but it had zero effect on my weight. A 5km run burns off about the same calories as a couple of chocolate biscuits!

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I am fat because I am greedy. I do not have big bones or a fat gene.
    Given the choice between a packet of smokey bacon flavour crisps and a packet of lettuce flavour crisps (if lettuce flavour is not an oxymoron) I would take the smokey bacon flavour every time.
    All other fat people are the same. It is not an illness. It is human nature. It is thin people who have something wired wrong.


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