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Is 'addiction' an excuse to overeat?

"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.

“I am concerned that many people may potentially latch on to the concept of food
addiction as an excuse to explain their overeating”

I am concerned that many people may potentially latch on to the concept of food addiction as an
excuse to explain their overeating”

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.