Is obesity a form of addiction?

We live in an obesogenic society where all of our celebrations and events are based around food. Food is freely available and most people feel slighted if they do not have breakfast, lunch and dinner often with snacks in between. Many jobs, these days, are sedentary and typically involve many hours of sitting. It has been said that sitting is the new cigarettes.

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Tragically, we are working against our physiology which is geared for the acute feast of the kill and then often a few days with minimal food intake. We also needed to use our legs all day to catch the food and to avoid being something else’s lunch. This is certainly not how we are living in the modern world and thus, it is no wonder that 70% of males are obese or overweight with 50% of females experiencing the same fate.

Eating is clearly a necessity to maintain survival but overeating is the norm and is obviously not necessary. The healthiest diet in the world which is backed up by enormous scientific studies is the Mediterranean diet but what also makes this diet very healthy is the associated timing of eating and their lifestyle. People who live a true Mediterranean lifestyle have a hearty breakfast involving fresh fruits and whole grains burning off any extra carbohydrates in the hot Mediterranean sun in the fields in the morning. The biggest meal is at lunchtime with a pasta and a couple of glasses of red wine making them sleepy. They have an afternoon sleep and then burn off any extra carbohydrates in the hot Mediterranean sun, again whilst toiling in the fields. Their evening meal is small.

In the modern world we have a high calorie, low nutrition, processed cereal with one or 2 pieces of toast and coffee with potentially a snack during the morning. We consume a few sandwiches for lunch and then are starving by the evening meal. We take in a huge calorie load with this meal and then sit in front of the television for a few hours. It is no wonder the weight is pouring on across society.

A recent study from the Montréal Neurological Institute published in the journal Nature — Human Behaviour looked at a variety of personality measurements and linked these scores with body weight and/or addictive behaviours. 18,611 participants were in the study. Interestingly, the study showed that all people with addictions had very similar personality profiles and these were very similar to people with uncontrolled eating. Strangely, obesity was behaviourally linked to addictions but with a much weaker connection compared with uncontrolled eating. I would suggest that uncontrolled eating is purely a more extreme form of obesity.

Interestingly, obesity also shared behavioural overlap with mood disorders and certain other personality disorders.

The important point here is that if we do not eat, we die. But, none of us need to use legal or illegal addictive substances and thus there does need to be some sort of distinction between obesity and addictions. It is my belief that addictions are the extreme form of urges. The vast majority of people living in our society experience some type of urge. Whether it is the urge to have the unnecessary biscuit, the extra glass of wine with a meal or even the urge to relax in front of the TV when you could be going for a walk. None of these urges could be classified as addictions. But, the key question here is when does an urge become addiction? When do those few extra pounds around the belly become a weight problem?

Although I believe there are many psychological factors surrounding obesity, I am not sure it is helpful or useful to classify this as an addiction but there is no doubt that the major epidemic of the 21st century is diabesity. Until we find better solutions to deal with this “enormous” issue we will continue to see the carnage from cardiovascular disease, cancer and even Alzheimer’s disease, all conditions associated with people carrying far too much weight around the belly. So, my strong advice to you would be the next time you have that urge for the extra biscuit, glass of wine or dessert, strongly consider the consequences.

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Dr Walker is an expert in the field of preventative cardiology and has published seven books. He gives lectures nationally and internationally.

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