Constant Cravings: Does Food Addiction Exist?

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Could obesity, in some cases, result from an addiction, and if so, do we need to change the way we treat it?

When we think about addiction, drugs, alcohol or gambling come to mind. Though hardly uncommon, many people will go their whole lives without ever even dabbling in them. But could the everyday act of eating also be addictive? In excess, drugs, alcohol and gambling can cause massive physical and psychological harm, cutting across class, sex and age. But so can excessive eating. And if we're to believe alarming predictions about rising obesity levels, then perhaps we need to consider looking at overeating from a different angle.

Researchers around the world are asking the same question: is overeating a compulsive behaviour that exploits the same biological mechanisms we see in people addicted to drugs or alcohol? Is there such a thing as food addiction and how addictive are certain foods? In Are We Addicted to Eating, Sally Marlow, a researcher in alcohol addiction at London's Institute of Psychiatry, explores the latest evidence underpinning the scientific basis for overeating, and asks just how radical should our solutions be?

In 2012, NeuroFAST, an EU research project began co-ordinating data on the relationship between overeating and addiction. Its mission is to achieve consensus on how overeating should be classified clinically, which might then lead to major shifts in treatment, public policy and attitudes to obesity.

Few of us, if we're honest, would consider obesity as little more than self-inflicted. And it's how many of us used to think about other addictions. Yet now we know that an individual's choices are influenced by a host of biological and environmental mechanisms: genes, brain chemistry and family history. Might overeating share these mechanisms? Behaviourally, does overeating feature the two psychological cornerstones of addiction: tolerance and withdrawal, where something that was initially pleasurable, becomes an act to relieve negative feelings of shame and disgust?
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