A third of the population could be addicted to food and the problem should be treated as a medical condition, says an addiction expert.
Professor Doug Sellman believes the symptoms of being hooked on food are similar to those seen in drug and alcohol addicts, but those grappling with the affliction receive no support or funding.
Meanwhile, those at the other end of the spectrum - such as anorexics - receive help for eating disorders.
Prof Sellman - director of the National Addiction Centre - will today address an Australasian psychiatry conference in Wellington 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.
"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 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".
"Even though they know it's bad for them, they still just feel this drive to eat." New Zealand was regarded as the second most overweight country in the world, behind the United States and narrowly ahead of Australia, Prof 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," he said.
"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.
Meanwhile, a Hamilton-based bariatric (stomach reduction) surgeon reckons teaching meditation in schools could be the best way to fight the mounting obesity epidemic.
David Schroeder - a long-time friend of Prof Sellman - agreed with the premise that obese people were addicted to food. Mr Schroeder has what he considers a classic anecdote to portray food addiction.
"There was a lady two years out of surgery, 53kg, and she thought: I can have an Easter egg this year, I'm fine. And found herself driving around at midnight trying to find an Easter egg for sale - she ended up eating 11 packets that Easter and totally reactivated her chocolate addiction."
He said food addicts were probably responding to the increasing stress and lack of satisfaction in daily life by going for what was readily available now: high-calorie foods.
"But imagine trying to take on McDonald's, KFC and all the others, trying to say if someone's got a body mass index greater than 30 you're not allowed to serve them? All we do is sit in the background being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff."
The balancing act of pleasure and control were governed by two parts of the brain, the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex, respectively.
The answer could lie in developing the latter, what Mr Schroeder calls the "control centre".
Brain scans of formerly obese patients showed those with large control centres did well after stomach surgery but those with small ones did poorly, he said. Scans had also shown that the bigger someone was, the smaller their control centre was.
"These people are being set up by an overactive pleasure centre and an underactive control centre.
"Two things: grow [the control centre] and this might be the salvation of the country - the first is decent, regular exercise and the other is meditation."
Some schoolswere already practising meditation techniques, he said.
SUGAR WAS HER POISON
Sugar was Paula's drug, her escape and it ruled her life.
She hasn't touched the sweet stuff for years but she still remembers the cravings, the "great desire to eat".
She's 67, married with two children and attends an Overeaters Anonymous meeting in Hamilton once a week.
In Paula's mind, Professor Doug Sellman is right.
She believes she was just like an alcoholic or a drug addict.
But her new life is far richer than the old where she'd hide away inside and compulsively consume anything containing sugar. "I was zoned out on food all the time," Paula says.
"You just block your life out. I used to sit there eating and reading romances when I was young instead of living life. I just shut myself away and ate."
Chocolate was a favourite.
"I just thought I was a guts and I couldn't stop eating - I didn't know why. It wasn't until I heard about [Overeaters Anonymous] that I realised that I am an addict and I do need help and I can't do it on my own."
She joined, nervously, more than 20 years ago weighing nearly 100 kilograms. She embraced the The Twelve Steps recovery programme and slowly weaned herself off sugary foods.
Today she's close to 50kg.
"People don't tolerate [obesity]. They just think we're disgusting and shouldn't eat so much. They don't understand the compulsion there is to eat and that's why it's such as blessing to come to OA because they understand."
Joining was the best thing she ever did for herself.
Her message to people who may be suffering what she went through is:
There is a solution if they're keen to try it out.
OA is listed in the phonebook.
*Paula is not the woman's real name as she wished to remain anonymous.
HOW KIWIS MEASURE UP
Normal weight: 34.1%
Source – Health Ministry
- Waikato Times