Some comments on “food addiction”

Abstinence and eating

 

A common misconception about body weight is that “overw*ight” and “ob*sity”1 are caused by overeating and/or food addiction. The corollary of that belief is that larger people can successfully lose weight by treating their “addiction” to food by participating in a 12-step based program derived from Alcoholics Anonymous. The most widely known of these is Overeaters Anonymous. This abstinence model has been distrusted by eating disorder researchers for decades. There are several problems with this approach.

 

First, the need for food is not an addiction. We are all born needing food to live. We cannot abstain from food. Even to try to abstain from “overeating” is tricky, because how do we define “overeating”? Additionally, research does not support the idea that certain foods are addictive (see this interesting article for more.)

 

Second, bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Body size is largely determined by genetics and metabolic changes will defend the “setpoint” against intentional restriction for weight loss. Long term intentional weight loss fails the vast majority of the time.

 

This leads us to the third point: overeating is almost always preceded by undereating.  Disordered eating is a common response to restrictive eating in the deliberate pursuit of weight loss. The best way to stop overeating is to stop undereating.

 

Last, treating food and eating problems as “addiction” contributes to and reinforces weight stigma. It centers the problem in the individual body as a flaw that should be fixed rather than a problem in society and culture in which some bodies are pathologized for profit. It undermines any appreciation for body diversity, instead it focuses on trying to make large bodies smaller. Weight neutral approaches have better outcomes, both medically and psychologically.

 

 

  1. I treat the words “overw*ight” and “ob*se/ob*sity” as slurs or profanity because they both reinforce weight stigma by labeling some bodies as aberrant. “Overw*ight” implies that there is a proper weight to be and one is over it. “Ob*se” pathologizes normal human body diversity. The word “fat” should be a neutral descriptor, like “tall” or “brunette” but it has been weaponized for profit and many people find it offensive. Many fat activists reclaim the word and use if freely in order to destigmatize it.