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 521.

    I guess I just dont get it I am slim and yes I exercise one hour everyday of my life and have done so for most of my life and because I was fit I survived a very traumatic Health scare and I thank the Lord every day that I can still enjoy exercising because a healthy body is a healthy mind

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    the exercise argument is poor. thin people arent doing 1hr ex a day. we know that isnt true. fat people years ago were generally those with genuine metabolism problems. they are a small % of population.

    for society as a whole, obesity is recent. so what changed? i think attempts to make all foods healthy by reducing fat, and thus adding sugar, sweetners & salt for flavour is the starting point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    Louise 512. Not all the morbidly obese can exercise,many have wrecked their joints by their weight.But all can stop or reduce eating for a while. An 800 to 1000 calorie a day diet cures T2 diabetes by reversing insulin resistance. & the NHS DOES help a lot. Diet sheets,gastric bypasses, free exercise classes & weightwatchers groups,both commercial & in clinics,fat reduction pills.Spoilt for choice

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    One issue that has yet to be addressed.

    There are a lot of people making large profits enticing other people to consume 'ingredients' which do them no favours nor the health services !!!

    Then of course you have the advertising industry !!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    we dont know enough about the subject.

    carbs like cereal, bread, potatoes & rice were part of most of my meals. after some reading, i limited myself to 80 grams of carbs a day. i lost 4st (2lbs a week) with little muscle loss. it was like a miracle cure. if i exercise, i eat a few more carbs to fuel that exercise.

    But, although no problems yet, my diet puts me at odds with the doc's advice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 516.

    To Oats 511, according to that chart I should be consuming over 3000 calories a day. I watch my calories very closely, and if I eat over 2000 a day I tend to gain weight. We are not all the same. I have run 10 miles today and cycled 20, and only consumed 1500 calories. I have to do this just to stay the same weight because within a few days I will suffer from uncontrollable urges to binge!

  • rate this

    Comment number 515.

    And you know what else is overused - surgical treatment for weight loss. Far too many are given weight loss surgery when a simple change in long term diet and exercise would be a better option for most!! Funny how most of these people can't lose weight and keep it off, but can easily do so just before surgical treatment. People just want the easy way out and think surgery is the answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 514.

    There is no excuse to over eat.
    Yes there are additives, sugars ect ect blah blah that are 'addictive' but they are not addictive to the point where we must eat 10x our body weight, otherwise we would all be doing it.
    It is pure greed, lack of self control and lack of motivation which is causing this obesiety problem.
    Get out your car and walk to the shops! Get off your sofa and go to Zumba!

  • rate this

    Comment number 513.

    Those who call things "addictions" are those who stand to directly profit from it. Stop these judgmental minions of the medical industry from turning the human condition into billing code. And remember: eat right, exercise, die anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 512.

    What a shame so many of your comments are so unsupportive and disrespectful towards obese individuals. Are you aware that a large proportion of morbidly obese people have other health problems which impact on their ability to manage their diet, or allow them to exercise? The NHS provides treatment and support for addictions like smoking, drinking, drugs, and eating disorders - why not for obesity?

  • rate this

    Comment number 511.

    Google calorie requirements calculator and it will tell you how many calories you need for your height weight and most importantly,age. My BMR is 1100 cals. Add 10% for my sedentary lifestyle and I can eat 1210 cals a day without gaining any weight.The only way anyone can increase their metabolic rate is by exercise. Otherwise we all have around the same metabolic rate relative to our age height.

  • rate this

    Comment number 510.

    As a milk and tea addict, I know the problem. It's not immoral, however, I don't think the human body was conceived to put up with addictions so on a long term basis they are probably harmful (apart from water !). Our life today is so stressful (especially when you work) that it is difficulte to fight addictions which are after all a way of combatting stress ( I could never give up tea !)

  • rate this

    Comment number 509.

    Some things are addictive, some aren't. Everyone eats, not everyone eats to obesity. Take some responsibility!

    Though if something the rest of us aren't funding, like a 12 step programme, helps you look after yourself then go for it.

    Why not try a healthy adventure and get an organic veg box each week? Mine is a challenge to my ingenuity as well as very healthy


  • rate this

    Comment number 508.

    506.MassMediocrity - "....'illness' you enable someone to carry on with such behaviours, and remove any personal responsibility and put more strain on the medical services. ...."

    Well help people stop then! It really is simple.

    Classifying something as an illness DOES NOT allow people to carry on - it forces them to recognise something needs to be done & allows help to be offered.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 507.

    I'll kick this food addiction if it's the last thing I do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 506.

    Is 'addiction' an excuse to overeat? - No, it's not an illness, it's gluttony. By classifying it as an 'illness' you enable someone to carry on with such behaviours, and remove any personal responsibility and put more strain on the medical services. There is more than enough information, which is easily available, that a person should not consume more than 2 - 2.5K calories a day of balanced diet

  • rate this

    Comment number 505.

    Our appetites evolved over millions of years for life when there were gluts then shortages of food... is now available 24/7 year round...

    ...but our appetites haven't caught on...

    ...our brains drive us to eat more when we don't need it - how can that be anything but an addiction that needs medical help, not lazy posturing by pompous idiots...???

  • rate this

    Comment number 504.

    The word addiction is just as unhelpful as calling someone a greedy, lazy pig. Neither empower the person towards change. Overweight people need to recognise they have an eating problem, but it does not reflect on them as a person and that they have the power to conquer it.

    Training your brain to see exercise as a fun and positive thing instead of a chore works absolute wonders too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 503.

    Amazing isn't how so many people so get so angry at other people's bad health regimes yet refuse to countenance any actual help for those people...

    ...the complaints are based on them picking up the NHS tab for the ill health...

    ...yet they'd rather shout at you than actually see you helped, at LOWER COST, to stop the destructive behaviour...

    ...bunch if idiots quote frankly.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 502.

    Addiction is always an excuse, and even if it exists, which I very much doubt the responsibility for doing something about it lies with the 'addict'.

    If you're fat you're greedy. Stop dieting. Focus on your character defects and you might find you eat and drink less.


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