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Is Obesity an Addiction?

Regular readers of these pages are well aware of the close link between addictions and some forms of overeating. This topic is now nicely addressed in a commentary by Valerie Taylor (McMaster, Hamilton), Claire Curtis and Caroline Davis (both York University, in this week’s edition of CMAJ.

As they discuss,

The concept of food addiction, which more accurately may reflect addiction to specific components of food, can be described in much the same way as other addictive behaviours. Both food and drugs induce tolerance over time, whereby increasing amounts are needed to reach and maintain intoxication or satiety. In addition, withdrawal symptoms, such as distress and dysphoria, often occur upon discontinuation of the drug or during dieting. There is also a high incidence of relapse with both types of behaviour.

To further support their arguments, they cite the many imaging studies showing that specific areas of the reward or mesolimbic system, such as the caudate nucleus, the hippocampus and the insula, are activated both by drugs and by food.

Thus, the easy accessibility of highly palatable foods together with our innate preferences for such foods, can increase the likelihood that vulnerable people will “misuse” food, in much the same way that addicts misuse other drugs to blunt negative emotional states, such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, anger orinterpersonal conflict.

While the concept of addiction should not negate the role of free will and personal choice, it does provide a rationale for the including addiction screens as a routine part of assessment for obesity. It may also help explain the success of lifestyle programs that incorporate pharmacotherapy or behavioural strategies specifically designed to address the addictive component of this illness.

Thus, as pointed out by Taylor and colleagues, there is not only considerable overlap among the medications shown to interfere with food and drug abuse in animal models, but the many behavioural interventions developed for managing addictions (motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioural therapy and 12-step programs), are increasingly recognised as also being helpful in managing obesity.

Health professionals and decision makers charged with tackling the obesity epidemic would do well to familiarise themselves with the science of addictions and utilize learnings from addiction management in their counseling of patients presenting with excess weight.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. This is an excellent article, I have forwarded it to my dietitian colleagues. As one can’t stop food as they can other substances such as alcohol, the long term challenge of managing eating habits is considerable.

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  2. I have been in the Weight Wise program since August. I believe you recognized my 50-year weight “problem” as an addiction, Dr. Sharma, as you noted that I have been using food to deal with emotional situations, i.e. interpersonal conflicts. I continue to fight this problem on my own. I am now longing to get the help I need to overcome this way of life. I’ve attended most of the modules and have learned a lot, but your blog continues to provide more information that speaks to my personal problem with weight.

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  3. Couldn’t agree more …. and also with Christina. I’m in the weight wise clinic for 2 years now and had my surgery (sleeve) 17 months ago … I know exactly what you’re saying.
    It feels like letting a tiger out of the cage when you have to eat and then have to catch the tiger again and get ’em back into the cage …. just to repeat this action 3 – 6 times daily …. not an easy task. The surgery helps for sure as a nice tool.
    Thanks and keep doing what your doing.

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  4. Many people find help in Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous. Some of us have been diagnosed as morbidly obese while others are undereaters. Among us are those who were severely bulimic, who have harmed themselves with compulsive exercise, or whose quality of life was impaired by constant obsession with food or weight. We tend to be people who, in the long-term, have failed at every solution we tried, including therapy, support groups, diets, fasting, exercise, and in-patient treatment programs.

    FA has over 500 meetings throughout the United States in large and small cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Charlotte, Grand Rapids, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Austin, and Washington, D.C. Internationally, FA currently has groups in England, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Australia. If you would like more information about FA, please check out our website. If there aren’t any meetings in your area, you can contact the office by emailing fa at foodaddicts dot org, where someone will help you.

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