We all want a healthy relationship with the food that we eat and enjoy. However for many, food can be as addictive as smoking or drug abuse. The NZ Health Ministry figures (2017) show that only 34.1 per cent of Kiwis are classified as normal weight, with 31.4 per cent categorised as obese, and the remainder overweight! That’s about 1 in 3 who will have or are having, serious health problems. This is not news to doctors and other health professionals. An Overeaters Anonymous spokeswoman puts it down to the fact that the draw of food is irresistible to some, with a study, published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, concluding that the more processed the food was, the more addictive it was. This is was put down to the fact that processed foods are more readily absorbed by the body and our body is, after all, designed to respond positively to easily digestible energy.
With the constant media reports on the addictive nature of sugar, potatoes, fast food and the rest, it seems that the only logical conclusion is that overeaters are all captivated by their urges to eat food. The perception being that the obese person is weak willed or just needs to try harder to control their cravings. The same could be said of people who smoke and drink too much – that they are captivated by their urges – except we often say they are “addicted” to their chosen vice. Nonetheless, the effect is the same whether it is cigarettes, alcohol or food.
The truth is that, even though we know it is bad for us, when we over subscribe to a pattern of behaviour that gives us pleasure, it is immaterial what the substance is that activates our brains “reward” centre. We just have this urge to keep going back for more.
Having a harmful preoccupation with food can be as damaging to your health as other addictions, but socially, can be more acceptable, and can often be enabled by others. Many of us will have experienced this urge to over-eat when food is freely available at your typical choose-all-you-can-eat buffet for-one-special-price diner. There is all that wonderful food waiting to be eaten, a little bite here and another there, and no matter how over stuffed you feel, the urge is still there to keep filling that plate up. Mr Creosote, the fictional character of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life fame, illustrates this point well! WARNING: this is not for the squeamish or easily offended!
However, just because you overeat at times does not mean you are a food addict. Gaining pleasure from food is a goal-orientated behaviour – we need to eat to survive – with an action, that of finding and consuming food. This result is a two-fold outcome. The pleasure of eating, while gaining energy to enable survival which is a natural state of affairs. But some people seem compelled, to their own detriment, to consume large quantities of highly processed foods despite knowing that by doing so, can damage their health.
There are though, a range of food related actions that vary from person to person. To start, there is the balanced eating pattern, with appropriate caloric intake looked on as “normal”. It then steps up to individuals who irregularly overeat at “occasions”, such as my example above or on a friend’s night out. Next on the continuum are the “disordered” eaters who are often preoccupied with how their food choices will affect their weight, body size or shape, with inflexible rules around foods that are eaten. After that, at the tail end of the continuum, are those who are considered “disarranged” eaters, with maladaptive responses to food. These are the ones who binge frequently, eat or snack continually throughout the day or eat mindlessly when they know they do not need to eat. When this type of behaviour is carried out repetitively, a person could be considered addicted to food.
Any type of consumption or substance use often begins as a simple reward experience for carrying out the associated action. Through the repetition of a pleasant end result, the behaviour is more likely to be repeated in the future. Eventually this behaviour can become habitual, and when this escalates into problematic consumption or substance use, we can end up with something recognised by society as “addiction.” This will often happen subconsciously to begin with, but when a person tries to remedy the situation by discontinuing the behaviour, physical symptoms of intense craving and a loss of control can manifest itself. Addictive behaviour reinforces the pleasure system in the brain each time the action is repeated, thus a habit is formed and then ingrained in ones actions.
Nevertheless, this addictive behaviour is subjective, as an activity perceived as a problem for you may not be a problem for others. Even among experts (such as Psychologists) there is debate on whether a person can actually be addicted to food or if they eat merely out of habit. In Psychology, habitual eating is defined as a “choice and personal responsibility” issue. Addictive behaviour on the other hand is viewed as a “neurosis or disease” with the blame being attached to certain deep-rooted biologic or personality traits that compels the behaviour. A story on Stuff (Sept, 2012) reported that there were calls from the National Addiction Centre for “food addiction” to be recognised as a “medical condition” so that obese people can get help to quit. But due to the lack of agreement and lack of a classification, doctors are unable to make an official diagnosis of food addiction. If it cannot be defined, does it exist?
Overeaters will often explain their food problems in terms of an addiction, but for many it can be an excuse for why they cannot seem to control their food intake. You may feel guilty after eating a certain food, but since this doesn’t meet the criteria for an eating disorder, it may not be consider a problem. Additionally, within your own social situation, how and what you eat may be reflected by those about you which in turn will reinforce your own practice. Equally, what may start as a desire to reach a particular health goal through adopting a particular way of eating (or not eating) can be just as detrimental, and can also lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. Overeating, like any excessive behaviour, is only worrisome if it is problematic to others or harmful to oneself in some way. Addiction is not a label that can simply be applied to anyone who eats a lot of food, who binges occasionally or is obese.
Discover more on why people overeat, and what to do about, it next article.
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