Are we using the term “addiction” too freely these days? Headlines portray a range of human weaknesses from social media “addiction” to shoe shopping “addiction”. We’ve long known about the serious nature of alcohol, nicotine and narcotic addictions, and the severe consequences they have on our society. But a relative newcomer is the term “food addiction”, discussed yesterday at an Australasian psychiatry conference in Wellington, and promoting this
rather odd Stuff poll. (Last time I looked at the poll results the category “something else” was in the lead. Not really surprising since chocolate does not have its own category – clearly the poll was written by a man!)
Is food addiction the ever-elusive single cause of the obesity epidemic? As a slightly pedantic sceptic, I must admit to finding this term somewhat illogical.
The official definition of addiction is: a persistent, compulsive dependence on a behaviour or substance. To some degree aren’t we all persistently, compulsively dependent on food? After all, unlike nicotine, gambling, alcohol and narcotics, we cannot live without it. Preferably we need it at least three times a day, every day, for our whole lives. Yet only a third of the population are supposedly at risk of having “food addiction”. If broccoli was your preference, would that be labelled an addiction?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to belittle the justifiably valid concerns of those who feel completely out of control around food, and who legitimately see this as a reason for their own weight problems – I just don’t see these people being in the majority. I was intrigued when I recently saw a notice on a bus advertising an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. Perhaps this is something we will see more of, and hopefully, as with AA, it will be a very helpful framework for individuals in order to work though common issues towards recovery.
But does this loss of control around food (or more correctly, specific types of food) occur in isolation? I’m no psychiatrist, but it would seem to me that underlying reasons for this type of behaviour would be multifactorial and complex. Overeating is therefore a symptom, which sadly results in symptoms of its own, exacerbating a cycle of health problems.
I don’t think the complete loss of control around food, with a continuous drive to eat more and more around the clock is solely responsible for the obesity epidemic we face. Most of us eat a little too much on a regular basis and are too inactive to balance
this intake of calories. Over time this leads to a gradual increase in the waistline, until we are in a situation where more people are overweight than are normal weight within the population, and nearly the same proportion are obese.
If it helps people to examine what they’re eating and how active their lifestyle is to label themselves as a “food addict”, then so be it. The only outcome I’m interested in is people getting healthier. This involves solutions that enable all of us to take more ownership of our health and make wiser choices about what foods and drinks we choose to buy and consume, in what amounts, and how much we sit being inactive. What do you think?