Posted by: ezzakazhall | October 3, 2012

I’m Erin, I’m a foodaholic. Hi, Erin.

 This article appeared on the front page of The Dominion Post last week.

It’s an interesting one. In the article, the Director of the National Addiction Centre states that “food addiction” (otherwise known as Compulsive Overeating) needs to be recognised in New Zealand as a medical condition, and that over a third of kiwis could be addicted to food – but receive no support or Government funding.

Says Prof Doug Sellman in the article:

“Like people with methamphetamine, you don’t get the shaking, but it’s the craving, feeling deprived and really needing itIt’s like they need those particular foods as if their lives depended on it. But they don’t; they’ve got their wires crossed.

“The thing with an addiction is whatever self-control you had at the beginning is eroded by the forming of the addictionIt’s a neurological thing.”

Apparently, the National Addiction Centre is conducting a study of 25 people attempting to “beat obesity”.

“Prof Sellman said the participants in the study often failed to control their cravings and if they tried to ditch one of their fixes they would crack.

‘They seem to go into a regressed state and really feel deprived, intensely. It’s like a primitive anger.’

The need for food ‘hijacks’ the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for the body’s survival instincts – in effect, the brain tricks the body into needing more and more food.”

As far as food addiction itself goes, it’s a subject that has been discussed  by the medical professional and the media on other occasions. For example, the medical site discusses the concept of food addiction in detail, noting that the idea has recently got more scientific support. Peer support services, such as Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous (the Wellington Branch is profiled here by one of my Whitireia colleagues) have been assisting people who struggle with compulsive eating for many years. Overeaters Anonymous even uses the same 12 Steps as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al Anon to assist addicts and their families.

This article discusses the addictive properties of fatty and sugary foods, stating (as Prof Sellman in the Dominion Post article already confirmed) that these foods can hijack the brain in ways that resemble addictions to nicotine and harder drugs. Says the authour: “Lab studies have found sugary drinks and fatty foods can produce addictive behavior in animals. Brain scans of obese people and compulsive eaters, meanwhile, reveal disturbances in brain reward circuits similar to those experienced by drug abusers.”  This Daily Mail article quotes experts as saying that those who struggle with Binge Eating Disorder suffer from similar problems as those who compulsively gamble or steal – and that the UK’s medical profession is discussing classifying it as a “behavioural addiction”.

I had two reactions upon reading the Dominion Post piece. Firstly…I’ll admit it was somewhat nice to see some discussion on obesity that touched on the struggles faced by the overweight when it comes to food. You don’t have to be online long these days before you come across a loud chorus of voices saying the obese people are lazy, gluttonous, weak-willed and a drain on society- and that their weight is their fault, and theirs alone. The reactions on to news of New Zealand’s first Fat Conference were a fine example of this. In fact, critics have even argued, both in the US and New Zealand, that government and corporate attempts to eradicate obesity are merely a moral panic against the overweight- which actually leads to poorer outcomes overall (as the Atlantic piece points out, noting weight cycling as one of the dangers).

To be honest, I find it slightly distressing that our society seems to equate large bodies with a lack of willpower and moral failing- and this piece explains it better than I can. So, if the Dominion Post and the National Addiction Centre are to be believed, and if an addiction to food is a contributor to weight problems- then it shows it’s more than a lack of self-control or “laziness” at work here. In the case of food addiction, funding should definitely be allocated to ensure those struggling can access the support they need.

My other reaction? Simple: not all people who struggle with overeating are obese. Neither are all people who are obese struggle with overeating. The WebMD article I linked above states that people of a “normal weight” can also experience food addiction, and theorises that “their bodies may simply be genetically programmed to better handle the extra calories they take in. Or they may increase their physical activity to compensate for overeating.”

This US website, which contains resources for people who think they may have a food addiction, states that: There are many food addicts who are a normal weight. Some of these healthy looking food addicts are bulimic. Others just have a metabolic system that keeps them appearing “normal,” even when they are bingeing abnormally. There is also a small but important group of food addicts who are dangerously thin.” On the flipside, there are people who practice healthy food habits and yet still are overweight. As I mentioned on this blog, studies have shown that practising healthy habits (five servings of fruit and veg a day, 30 minutes exercise, getting enough sleep etc) lead to good health and wellbeing, regardless of weight.

In my opinion, though the Dominion Post article highlighted some important issues…once again, too much focus is being placed on weight. Not only is it extremely stereotypical to suggest that food addiction is a problem for just the obese (without mentioning problems for people of other body weights), it also alienates smaller people struggling with overeating- making them less likely to seek help.

As I said earlier, it does highlight the fact that it’s not just a simple matter of willpower for some people with weight issues. But, what I’d like to see is funding being allocated to support food addicts of all shapes and sizes. Because…they do exist, as a matter of fact.



  1. Another excellent post!

    I am wondering if some people who are considered food addicts, either by medical professionals, or the people are calling themselves food addicts, might not even technically be food addicts – what if they are so heavily influenced by the toxic diet culture that they think they are overeating, when they are actually eating normal amounts of food (that their bodies need) but they feel so guilty about it because they aren’t depriving themselves? Or what about the vicious dieting cycle: people who diet, feel deprived, binge, feel extremely guilty and then diet and restrict themselves severely again. Could that be another reason why people get addicted to food?

    I’d also like to know what part big business has to do with food corporations producing and marketing food that contains GMOs and other ingredients that can lead to food addiction. I’m assuming there’s a huge connection and that due to big business and the government being in bed together (big example is the US) so big corporations can push a lot of potentially really unhealthy food on us with no consequences.

    In the US, there are huge subsidies for corn production, which is why there is so much high fructose corn syrup in American foods, especially those wicked beverages we are always being warned about. For many Americans, this is the kind of food they can afford, and they have limited access to healthier foods. It’s one more way that the victims are being blamed in order to distract from making huge corporations take responsibility for their actions, especially if it means it will cost them money and effect their bottom line. The bottom line is pretty much always more important than actual people, right? So depressing.

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