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Addicted to eating

As obesity rates continue to rise, some scientists are questioning if an addiction to overeating could be at fault.

Addicted to eating

Many of us grapple with our food choices on a daily basis and, for some of us, to eat or not to eat can be a question stuck on permanent repeat.

But can we be addicted to food? That is the question the medical community is pondering at the moment.

Although we tend to trivialise our cravings for chocolate, chips and even coffee (having referred to ourselves at some points as “addicts”) growing evidence is suggesting that eating addictions could be the real deal.

Like other forms of addiction, Binge Eating Disorder can be the cause of psychological and even physical harm for its miserable sufferers.

Those who have given up coffee, alcohol, smoking or even those dreaded ‘carbs’ would attest to the fact that dealing with addiction can be difficult. For many successful former addicts, going cold turkey is the only way to shake what’s ailing you.

But, as one addiction researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry in London Sally Marlow recently wrote in an article for BBC Health, avoiding the thing you’re most addicted to is hard when it is permanently kept in your house and, even worse, something you must come face-to-face with three times a day.

Marlow, who has spoken to many overeaters as part of her research, believes there is compelling testimony for addiction to be responsible for overeating. She is not alone.

A prominent American neuroscientist and head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the US, Dr Nora Volkow believes there is strong evidence that food and eating can be addictive.

In her research, Dr Volkow has found the neurotransmitter dopamine, known to be associated with addiction, behaves in a similar way in the brains of those who are heavily addicted to drugs, and those who are obese.

However, not everybody agrees that addiction is the right way to describe a tendency to overeat. British psychologist, Professor Jane Odgen, believes labelling overeaters as ‘addicts’ can hinder their ability to recover – as it removes any ‘personal responsibility’ from the equation.

“The addiction world has given us a strong narrative that says you have no control – things in your brain are wanting more sugar or chocolate,” Odgen says.

Yet, if food is like many other addictions, it should be, in theory, successfully treated.

Following on from current addiction treatment examples, the key would be either complete abstinence or a reduction of harm – achieved through prescribing medications or alternatives like nicotine gum is to smoking.

Abstaining from food permanently is, of course, impossible. But abstaining from overeating could be achieved through the tried-and-tested 12-step programme used by groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

In fact, Overeaters Anonymous groups already exist. The OA program weans addicts off overeating in different ways; some are prescribed an abstinent three meals a day, while others have a ‘sponsor’ decide what they can and cant eat during the day.

More extreme treatments involve bariatric surgery – such as a gastric band, bypass or sleeve – which physically restricts the volume of food that can be consumed.

While the scientific community remains divided over the issue, many are hoping to find a link between overeating and addiction that could help to curb rising obesity.

The European Union has even funded a project called ‘NeuroFAST’ dedicated to bringing the evidence together and researching the issue further.

So far, they have found addiction to play a role in only one type of eating disorder – Binge Eating Disorder; a side effect of which is obesity.

Binge Eating Disorder is defined as:

  • A feeling of compulsion to overeat on a regular basis, sometimes including pre-planned binges
  • Those affected consume large amounts of food in a short time, often when they are not hungry
  • Overeating usually happens in private, leaving the person feeling out of control or guilty
  • The disorder is linked to obesity and conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease
  • Treatments include anti-depressants and cognitive therapies


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