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Food addiction under the spotlight in latest research debate

Individuals who over-eat might be more at risk of developing a food addiction compared to those who consume a moderate amount of food, experts have reported.

However, some healthcare professionals disagree with the term ‘food addiction’ as they believe that people are only addicted to substances you develop a tolerance to, such as alcohol or nicotine.

Academics are continuously examining the eating behaviours of over eaters to assess whether food addictions do actually exist.

According to possible ‘food addicts’, their food obsession controls their life by keeping them away from their family, causing difficulties with their job and damaging their physical and mental health.

Most people become addicted to foods high in saturated fats and sugar, such as burgers, ice cream and chips. However, 33-year-old Lauren Webb, from Cornwall, became addicted to fruit, raw vegetables and vegan food.

She said: “My addiction didn’t even start with ‘bad’ foods. I believed I was being healthy because I wasn’t eating junk or chocolate, but I was still thinking about food all the time.

“I couldn’t eat just one apple, it had to be seven. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and when I would next eat.”

As part of her addiction, Lauren would spend hours at the fridge, consuming anything and everything that was inside. In addition, she would frequently pass out in the kitchen after eating too much.

Previous research has revealed that overeating can cause a person to black out, mainly impacting individuals with diabetes and over 70s.

Lauren’s food intake worsened when she started dating somebody who liked eating processed foods, causing her to put on 40 lb in just a few months.

Lauren first noticed her addictive eating behaviours after she spent time with a recovering alcoholic at a yoga retreat.

She said: “This lady said she recognised the same addictive traits in me — only with food. It was then that I realised I wasn’t just an overeater, I had a food addiction, just like any other addiction.”

Currently, food addictions are not yet classified as they are not listed in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases.

Professor Jane Ogden, of the University of Surrey, said: “Addiction is probably the wrong word. The classical term of addiction means that you develop tolerance to something, and you get withdrawal when you don’t have it any longer.

“But it also suggests that there are some kind of brain and biological responses to the substance and that is the level at which the addiction happens.”

She added: “With food, it is far more psychological than it is biological, so it’s probably not what I would call classically an addiction, but people have definitely built an unhealthy relationship with food. Perhaps we should call it a dependency.”

However, clinical psychologist, Dr Jen Unwin believes that a food addiction is just as damaging as an alcohol or nicotine addiction.

According to Dr Unwin, high-calorie foods are more addictive than low-calorie foods as they trigger dopamine in the brain, which is associated with pleasure. Eating food is also associated with serotonin, otherwise known as the happy hormone.

She said: “After a big meal or a nice piece of cake, your insulin levels go up and this makes tryptophan – an amino acid – spill more easily across the blood-brain barrier, causing an increase in serotonin. For some people food is an emotional comfort that can become embedded.”

Professor Ogden said: “We plug food into lots of different components in our lives — so, when you have afternoon tea you have a muffin, when you’re feeling sad you have some cake, when you want to celebrate you go out for dinner.

“Even when you’re watching TV you eat crisps. It plugs into your day in a way that becomes a habit and then you attach emotions to it.”

She added: “If you believe you are dependent on food, keeping a food diary can help. Writing down what you have eaten and where every day can help you identify the triggers.

“Try and remove those emotional triggers by finding something else that can be a substitute — going for a walk, talking to a friend, taking up an absorbing hobby and getting through that ‘peak’ of need. Then remind yourself you came through the peak and be really proud of yourself for doing so.”

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