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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  • Comment number 201.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    @192. landscape

    Please see previous response - the article is about that fact that lots of people are being labelled as food addicts when they are just greedy.

    Nobody is disputing that there are differences between addiction and and being lazy, people are arguing that every fat person now seems to be a food addict - which is just not the case.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    People don't always eat because they are lazy and greedy. Some people eat because they feel so cr** about themselves, so miserable isolated marginalised and lonely and NOBODY will help them. They can go to a fat club, but are then faced with high prices and smiling happy success stories, then go home and feel even worse about themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    As in most things, there is a small nugget of truth among the dross. Medical research has shown that eating chocolate releases a small amount of the same endorphins that some recreational drugs induce. Sugar, especially in children, can give a "sugar rush". However, chips and doner kebabs are just plain garbage for the body.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    Genetic research demonstrates that overweight people are more likely to carry genes that affect satiety. To these individuals, food is moreish, like cocaine and tobacco, and could be considered an addiction. However the overall effect of these genes is relatively small, so those with all the 'bad' copies should have a BMI within the normal range, just a little higher. Lack of excersise is the key.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    ''Im fat ''
    ''Im fat and now I am unhealthy''
    ''Im fat , unhealthy and now I am unhappy''

    perhaps we could write some new nursery rhymes , like ''ring o ring of roses , a pocket full of poses'' when they had the bubonic plague

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    addiction in all in forms is woefully misunderstood. Enough harm is placed upon people who are unfortunate enough to suffer from addiction and this article only furthers that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    Yes Prader-Willi Syndrome is fairly rare, but more children are living with the condition into adulthood and are facing the same sort of vitriol as expressed in this HYS.
    In fact, anyone who has a disorder/damage through accident to their Hypothalamus can develop severe food addiction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    We talk about this as though overweight people don't already feel bad about themselves. No one wants an excuse to stay big, they want to know how to conquer their urges.

    Regardless of whether you think such people should be made to feel ashamed of themselves, they need help. Identifying why they overeat will help them to help themselves.

    Bullying and scorn will only lead to more fat people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    People, do some research. educate yourselves.
    Look up the definition of addiction.
    There's a massive difference between bad habits, laziness and addiction.
    Very different things.
    Habits are just that, addiction is a mental illness defined as a brain disorder.
    The problem is identifying genuine addiction from bad habits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    .. I enjoy a normal portion of something sweet or calorific but too much of it is not a pleasant sensation, I learned this as a child and it is what keeps me healthy.

    Actually some recent research suggests this is a function of a particular gene & it may be switched off in some obese people so they don't get the sensation encouraging them to stop

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    "food addiction" - no you're just a fat lazy greedy slob who stuffs their face all the time. Always blaming something else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    "You do not need to feel blind drunk before you stop drinking."

    I generally don't feel nothing when I stop drinking

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    I read so many articles on obesity, food, diet etc etc

    Fat people. I have a message for you.

    Get off you bottom, open the front door and go for walk! And do not stop at chip shop or newsagents while you are out!

    You are far because you are lazy and like eating. Address both these problems and your worries are over!

    Use to my words to benefit your life.

  • Comment number 187.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    The 'big-boned' will just snaffle this article: yet another excuse to blame someone else for their predatory scoffing and uber-appetites:) A lifetime of telling themselves to stuff their slobbering chops at every opportunity. They blame their parents, their partners, media images and how society labels 'the fat'. Anyone but their own restraint. Sometimes vanity works:)

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    Lets all starve, and make lots of bakers redundent,close a load of shops.. If you dont want dont buy. If you do "Enjoy"

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    @142 Alan Robinson
    "Over-eating is gluttony"

    I bet some people today have never even heard of that word (it's so non PC !)
    Maybe it's time we got back to calling a spade a spade.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    There is such an illness as Prader Willi syndrome. This is caused by signals not getting to the brain to tell it, the stomach is full, as I understand it? However, as far as I know, it's pretty rare?

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    Just another example of the "professional classes" finding ways to further control society. Call whatever it is an "illness", take away the sense of personal responsibility, and put the 'solution' in the hands of elites who are more than happy to dictate the terms of society and cultivate the market for their opiates. To surrender your social obligation to be responsible is to sign up as a lab rat


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