Food addiction should be recognised as a medical condition so obese people can get help to quit, the National Addiction Centre director says.
Almost a third of the population could be addicted to food - yet struggling addicts received no support or funding, unlike people at the other end of the spectrum who receive help for eating disorders such as anorexia, Christchurch-based Professor Doug Sellman said.
He will address an Australasian psychiatry conference in Wellington today on research into food addiction.
The symptoms were similar to those in drug and alcohol addicts, he said.
"Like people with methamphetamine, you don't get the shaking, but it's the craving, feeling deprived and really needing it. It's like they need those particular foods as if their lives depended on it. But they don't; they've got their wires crossed.
"The thing with an addiction is whatever self-control you had at the beginning is eroded by the forming of the addiction. It's a neurological thing."
The National Addiction Centre is halfway through a five-year study of 25 people hoping to beat obesity.
Sellman said the participants in the study often failed to control their cravings, and if they tried to ditch one of their fixes they would crack.
"They seem to go into a regressed state and really feel deprived, intensely. It's like a primitive anger."
The need for food "hijacks" the brain's limbic system, which is responsible for the body's survival instincts - in effect, the brain tricks the body into needing more and more food.
Like drug addictions, people addicted to food needed increasingly large "hits" to get their daily fix.
"Even though they know it's bad for them they still just feel this drive to eat."
Health Ministry figures show just 34.1 per cent of Kiwis are classified as normal weight, 37 per cent are overweight and 27.8 per cent obese.
New Zealand is regarded as the second-most-overweight country in the world, behind the United States and narrowly ahead of Australia, Sellman said.
"We are in the midst of an advancing obesity epidemic. It's our whole style of life. We've become inactive . . . and we are surrounded by treat food and alcohol.
"The only effective way for an individual [to conquer their addiction] now is surgery.
"But that would bankrupt the country - we don't have the money to give everyone a new stomach."
He said the Government needed to do more to combat obesity.
An Overeaters Anonymous spokeswoman said the draw of food was irresistible.
"There's not a lot of understanding out there. People see an overweight person and just think, 'They're weak willed,' or ‘They just need to try harder,' but it's not like that.
"For us, it's exactly the same as drug and alcohol addiction. You just have this urge, even though you know you are not supposed to eat . . . and once you start you can't stop, you just keep eating and eating. It's not just a physical problem, it's mental."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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