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Food addiction: a flawed excuse for overeating

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By Rick Pendrous+

07-Oct-2013
Last updated on 07-Oct-2013 at 10:20 GMT

Claims that people can get ‘hooked’ on certain foods which then makes them obese are overstated, with the result that food addiction is becoming an overly simplistic explanation for overeating, according to a leading expert in psychobiology.

While it is possible that a very small percentage of the population –  about  5% –  could be ‘food addicts’, the idea of food addiction is exaggerated, said professor John Blundell, who holds a chair in psychobiology at the Institute of Psychological Sciences at the University of Leeds.

“The term food addiction is being used too freely as an explanation for overeating,” said Blundell. “The condition has been described in the clinical literature for decades; only recently has the term food addiction been applied on a much larger scale to implicate millions of people and to be compared with drug addiction.”

Blundell will be chairing a conference ‘Food Addiction – what is the evidence?’ being held today [Monday October 7] in London. The event is being organised by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF).

Academics speaking at the conference will discuss the latest scientific evidence behind the concept of addiction in relation to food.

“As a term, food addiction is confusing and sometimes contradictory,” added Blundell. “The evidence for the concept comes from a combination of experimental data, anecdotal observations, scientific claims, personal opinions, deductions and beliefs.

“It is a simplification of a very complex set of behaviours and is now being connected with obesity, with the suggestion that it is a clinical explanation for the epidemic.”

88% of consumers believe sweet foods are addictive

A recent survey conducted by the BNF showed that 88% of consumers believe that sweet-tasting foods are addictive.

Sara Stanner, BNF nutrition science programme manager, said: “Humans have an innate desire for sweet tasting and energy-dense foods from birth, so it’s not surprising that some people think that their cravings for specific foods are driven by a physiological need.

“But there are many other factors influencing our desire for these types of foods, not least the learning mechanisms that encourage us to turn to certain foods linked with various emotions as a habit.”

Also addressing the conference, Peter Rogers, professor of biological psychology at the University of Bristol, said: “People use attributions to explain their behaviour. So, for example, the idea that they might be addicted to a particular food may lead them to believe that they have been ‘taken over’ by that particular substance and that their behaviour is, therefore, out of their control.

Removing personal responsibility

“The implication of this is that overeating is not their fault and they can’t help it. Removing personal responsibility for overeating is both attractive to the individual and potentially counterproductive to change.”

Ian Macdonald, professor of metabolic physiology, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham and member of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, will consider the evidence that fructose and sucrose may have specific effects on our metabolism or central nervous system that could equate with the effects of proven addictive substances such as cocaine.

Macdonald said: “Addiction is a specific clinical definition with human behaviours related to it. It has been claimed that the sweetness of sucrose, and particularly fructose, leads to behavioural changes which resemble addiction.”

Carbohydrates not addictive like drugs

However, he added: “Carbohydrates are nutrients which provide energy that the body needs and therefore they cannot be classified as addictive in the way that drugs are.

“The confusion around foods and addiction comes partly from functional imaging research which shows that the brain’s reward areas are stimulated by sweet foods. However, these areas of the brain are also stimulated by a lack of sugar and no one has suggested that a lack of sugar is addictive.”

Macdonald went on to explain that the brain is totally dependent on a continuous supply of glucose in order to function normally. “This is a basic survival function and it is not surprising therefore that reward centres are activated by such foods,” he added.

“Also, contrary to popular belief, sugar itself eaten in excess is not bad for you, only when it’s eaten in a diet that includes more energy than your body needs. There is also no strong evidence that fructose is worse for you than glucose or that either is damaging to health in terms of metabolism.”

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7 comments (Comments are now closed)

Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous

Are you having trouble controlling the way you eat? Many of us with this problem have found help in Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA). FA is a program based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The programme offers help and recovery to those whose connection with food can be understood as a form of addiction. There are no dues or fees and the meetings include no weigh-ins. Membership is international and includes men and women, adolescents, and the elderly. All are welcome.

People who find help in FA vary greatly. Some of us have been diagnosed as morbidly obese while others are undereaters. Among us are those who were severely bulimic, who have harmed themselves with compulsive exercise, or whose quality of life was impaired by constant obsession with food or weight. We tend to be people who, in the long-term, have failed at every solution we tried, including therapy, support groups, diets, fasting, exercise, and in-patient treatment programs.

Some of our members have been in continuous recovery (maintaining a stable, healthy weight and enjoying freedom from obsession with food, weight, bingeing, or bulimia) for over twenty-five years. Members with five to 10 years of recovery are increasingly common.

FA has over 350 meetings throughout the US in large and small cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Charlotte, Grand Rapids, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Austin, and Washington, D.C. Internationally, FA currently has groups in England, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Australia. If you would like more information about FA, please check out our website. If there aren’t any meetings in your area, you can contact the office, where someone will help you.

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Posted by Food Addicts
19 October 2013 | 01h59

Why no mention

of eating natural sugars and low GI foods? surely the issue here is the balance...our bodies like a stable environment- homeostasis. The highs and lows of processed sugars apart from the effects on the body must affect at least cognitive function, mood etc. Can that then become addictive in itself?

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Posted by Ali Sparkes Wellness Pharmacist
13 October 2013 | 11h13

Useful link.

Hubert Linders - Thank you for posting the link. My suspicions, confirmed!

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Posted by Meg Forest
13 October 2013 | 02h00

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