"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
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.
This is in contrast to drug addiction, where
the molecule is identified and its pharmacological effect on the brain
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
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.