There is still much debate amongst researchers and scientists as to whether or not addiction is the cause of rising obesity levels in both the UK and the rest of the world. Overcoming any addiction can be very difficult, and although at The Providence Projects we primarily treat alcohol and drug addiction, anyone who has tried to give up caffeine or smoking will know how hard it can be.
The difficulty with food addiction is the inability to abstain. Quite simply, if you are addicted to smoking, the answer is to not smoke; if you are addicted to alcohol, the answer is to not drink; but if you are addicted to food? This is something which is always in the house and something that you will have to do at least three times a day.
So far, only one condition linked to overeating and food addiction is properly recognised. This is called Binge Eating Disorder and is described in the following way:
- A feeling of compulsion to overeat on a regular basis, sometimes including pre-planned binges
- Those affected consume large amounts of food in a short time, often when they are not hungry
- Overeating usually happens in private, leaving the person feeling out of control or guilty
- The disorder is linked to obesity and conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease
From many years of experience at The Providence Projects and working in conjunction with other addiction clinics around the UK, I have no doubt at all that the growing rise in obesity is linked directly to food addiction. I have seen, first-hand, on so many occasions, clients in tears, suicidal, desperate to change their behaviour but feeling unable to do so. This presentation is so similar to that of our alcohol or drug addicted clients it is clear that food addiction is most definitely real; it can cause misery, ruin lives and tear apart families.
If you or a loved one has an addiction to food and you want to speak to a professional addictions counsellor, please call The Providence Projects on 0800 9550945
Twenty years ago people were reluctant to accept that gambling could be addictive, but now there is widespread acceptance of this idea
Michael and Louise are both members of Overeaters Anonymous. It works in much the same way as the other 12-step programmes with peer-led group confidential meetings, personal mentors, and a structured programme of steps to work through.
There is no doubt that for some it's highly successful, just like Alcoholics Anonymous can be.
It's not possible to abstain from eating, of course, but it is possible to abstain from overeating.
For Louise, abstinence is three healthy meals a day, no wheat and no chocolate. For Michael his abstinence food plan is determined by his sponsor - he is told by someone else what he is allowed to eat.
Other treatments are more radical.
In alcohol addiction, the body can be altered so that it rejects alcohol by implanting a drug known as antabuse. If alcohol is consumed, the body reacts with nausea. Similarly in overeating, the body can be altered by bariatric surgery - a gastric band, bypass or sleeve, which restricts the volume of the stomach available for food.
It sounds extreme but it works for most people, and the evidence shows the risks of surgery are far outweighed by the health benefits of losing excess weight. People live longer, and have fewer heart and mobility problems. Diabetes is even reversed in some cases, and people report a massively improved quality of life. The possible relationships between food and addiction are incredibly complicated, and there is a lot we do not yet understand.
Twenty years ago people were reluctant to accept that gambling could be addictive, but now there is widespread acceptance of this idea, and good evidence to support it.
Are we at the same place with food - waiting for the evidence and attitudes to change? Nicola Schlesinger, a counsellor, works with women who have addiction problems and eating disorders. What would she say to those scientists who do not believe food can be addictive?
"They don't necessarily have the people sitting in front of them that I have on a daily basis in tears, in pain, hating themselves, feeling suicidal," she says.
"They can say what they like but in the end we still have to deal with the reality of the situation as it presents itself."
Hopefully NeuroFAST and others will move us closer to narrowing the gap between scientists on both sides of the debate, and find solutions for people who do feel a compulsion to overeat.