Would you tell a drug addict to just “lower their cocaine intake” or to just “take ecstasy in moderation” – put them in an environment where they are surrounded by the drug they are addicted to at every turn and then tell them just to “stop being so lazy” and to “exercise some self-restraint”? – OF COURSE YOU WOULDN’T – and yet this is how we are treating people that are overweight and obese every day. “Eat less and exercise more” or “just cut your calories – it’s pretty simple” over-weight people get told by medical practitioners. Yet very few people realise that over-eating is an issue very similar to drug addiction and that requires just as much (if not more) support and psychological help in order to fully treat. Whilst everyone’s motivations and triggers for over-eating will be different – over-eating always has something psychological at its root.
Many scientists and therapists have described obesity as an addictive disorder. “Both drugs and food have powerful reinforcing effects, which are in part mediated by abrupt dopamine increases in the brain reward centres” (Volkow et al 2012). Hammond (1990) explains that obesity results “from an addiction that is as difficult to treat successfully as drug dependency and smoking – and probably much more so” (p. 379).
Over-eating may even be more difficult to overcome than drug addiction. How can you ask an over-weight person to give up their addiction when food is available to them everywhere, 24/7, in vast quantities – more than they could ever need and more than they could ever want. Whether it is comfort eating, reaching for food when stressed, sad or uncomfortable – there is ALWAYS something (usually over-processed and very unhealthy) there to grab to satisfy the emotional void. Yet this use (or abuse) of food to satisfy an emotional craving only leads to feelings of guilt which in turn often triggers even more eating.
What is the good news in all of this? - It is possible to help people that have had life- long issues with their weight. Life doesn’t have to be years of going on and off one diet after another, bingeing, feeling guilty, feeling unattractive and thinking that it must be something to do with their metabolism. With the right psychological support, it is very often possible to help people with weight issues to find a way to make permanent change. Diets and nutrition plans may allow someone to achieve weight loss in the short-term but as soon as the individual comes off that diet or nutrition plan - they will go back to eating the way they always have - those psychological issues will still be there.
No – drug addicts shouldn’t just try to “GIVE UP” cocaine whilst sitting in a room surrounded by the stuff and being told how little self-restraint they have – and similarly, people with weight-issues should not be told just to “EAT LESS AND EXERCISE MORE”. Weight issues are never that simple. Obesity is a psychological issue and hopefully in time people will realise that it is a mental health issue in the same way as depression and anxiety are – giving people access to the support and resources they need to truly resolve their issues for good.
The Reference List
Hammond, D. (1990), Handbook of Hypnotic Suggestions and Metaphors, New York: The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis.
Volkow, N., Wang, G., Fowler, J. & Tomasi, D., Baler, R. (2012) ‘Food and drug reward: overlapping circuits in human obesity and addiction’, Carter, C. & Dalley, J. (2012) Brain Imaging in Behavioral Neuroscience, volume 11: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.