The Role of Addiction in the Obesity Epidemic

We hear it on the news on a nearly daily basis: Americans are fat. Not just overweight or a little pudgy, Americans are obese. It started with adults, but now children are facing the same fate in this country. Too many people are carrying around an excess of weight. Being obese causes a range of health problems, from an increased risk of certain types of cancers to high blood pressure and heart disease. In fact, being obese is life-threatening. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 36 percent of adults in the U.S. are obese, a number that has been steadily growing for years. In spite of all the public discourse, Americans are still getting bigger. For children, the statistic is lower, but also troubling. Nearly 17 percent of children in America are obese and that number is also growing by the year. As doctors, policy makers, and others attempt understand and change the trends, the question arises: Does addiction play a role in this?

What is causing the obesity epidemic?

The causes of obesity are not very difficult to understand. People who weigh too much are exercising too little and eating too much. What is more complex, is figuring out the underlying reasons for minimal movement and excessive eating. Some have suggested a genetic factor, but because each generation is heavier than the previous one, that cannot explain the current epidemic. In terms of understanding why we eat more and move less than we used to, there are a number of factors to consider. Advances in technology have made life easier. Physical exertion is no longer needed for many tasks as it was in the past. More people live in sprawling suburbs than ever before, which means we can’t walk to the stores or to school anymore. More people are commuting longer distances to work, leaving little time for exercise. And as for eating, our range of choices has exploded over the years. We can now afford to get a wide variety of different foods, which makes eating more interesting.

Is addiction involved in obesity?

While there are many, many reasons that can be cited for the obesity epidemic, a new one has arisen that cannot be ignored. Addiction seems to play a role in many individual struggles with weight loss and maintenance. Addiction is not just for drugs and alcohol. The same behaviors, genetic factors, and susceptibility that play a role in addiction to substances can be found in addiction to food, shopping, and even using the internet. Another term for food addiction is compulsive overeating. Some addiction experts refuse to acknowledge the possibility of an actual addiction, but cannot deny that for some, eating is a compulsive and obsessive behavior. There are many similarities between a drug addict or an alcoholic and certain obese overeaters. Both use a substance in a compulsive manner, regardless of the negative effects on health and the negative social impacts. Drug users experience a tolerance and need to use more to get a high. The same is true with overeaters. They must eat more and more food to achieve the emotional response they get from eating and to feel full and satisfied. Overeaters even experience withdrawal symptoms when they are not consuming food. Similarly to a drug addict without a fix, an overeater may have mood swings and physical discomfort. It is important to understand all of the reasons people overeat and cannot lose weight. Too often, obese and overweight individuals are blamed and considered lazy. While will power and personal choice are certainly important in weight gain, we must understand the other aspects of overeating and obesity. Recognizing similarities to addiction means that experts can find new and more effective ways of helping people stop eating and losing weight. Evidence that eating may be an addiction for some people could lead to new therapies that are similar to those used for drug addicts and alcoholics in recovery. Analyzing all the reasons for the obesity epidemic is essential to beginning to remedy the problem. It is no longer good enough to simply blame the obese individual. Other reasons must be considered and the role of addiction cannot be overlooked.

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