As the obesity crisis continues to spread around the world, nutrition scientists keep looking for answers why millions of people eat more than they should. One possible explanation, some have suggested, is food addiction, an inability to stop eating, even when it makes us sick.
There is indeed some evidence of a link between excessive food consumption and addictive behavior, according to the Rudd Center at Yale University, a research institute that specializes in eating disorders, among other food and health-related subject matters. Their findings (which can be found at this website) they claim indicate that certain foods (e.g. sugar) may be “capable of triggering an addictive process in susceptible individuals.”
The whole notion that food addiction actually exists, however, has now been called into question at a recent conference held by the British Nutrition Foundation.
“While it is possible that a very small percentage of the population – about five percent – could be ‘food addicts,’ the idea of food addiction is exaggerated,” said Dr. John Blundell, a professor of psychobiology at the Institute of Psychological Sciences at the University of Leeds, England, and chair of the event.
“There has been extensive publicity in the press on the supposition that certain foods are ‘addictive’ and that food ‘addiction’ is contributing to the current obesity crisis,” he said. “[But] as a term, food addiction is confusing and sometimes contradictory. It is a simplification of a very complex set of behaviors and is now being connected with obesity, with the suggestion that it is a clinical explanation for the epidemic.”
The fact is that the reasons why people reach for food can be multiple. Besides stilling hunger, it can be a way to cope with stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, etc. Or it can be linked to traumatic experiences in the past, possibly during childhood. It may also be part of addictive behavior in general, including toward food.
So is a diagnosis of food addiction just a flawed excuse for overeating? There are no easy answers to that, according to Dr. Elizabeth Hartney, a psychologist specializing in addictions and a registrant with the Canadian Register of Health Services Providers in Psychology (CRHSPP).
“In a sense, we are all addicted to food,” she said. Think about what it feels like when you aren’t able to eat. You start to crave food, and become more physically and emotionally uncomfortable the longer the cravings go on for, until eating becomes the most important thing for you to do. This is the constant experience of people struggling with food addiction, even if they have plenty to eat.”
While it is not fully understood what triggers the particular addiction to food, we know that there are similarities between addiction to food and to certain drugs, which also can produce feelings of pleasure and well-being. And like with other substances, satisfaction from eating does wear off and must be renewed by ever greater consumption.
Whatever answers the expert eventually will come up with (if any), the question remains why so many people overeat to the point where they develop life-threatening illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. It is almost unimaginable that they should all be doing this for the same reason. And if so, what could be the underlying cause?
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” You can also follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook, Google+ and on Pinterest.