Food Addiction and Obesity
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Photo: The Welcome Center at IslandWood
I’ll probably be uncommonly quiet for the next few days, while I attend a research conference on obesity, the subject of a book on which I’m collaborating with a neuroscientist whose research has brought him some original insights.
Billed as a “summit,” the conference will bring together 11 MDs and PhDs to share what they know about addiction to sugar, fat, and refined food and how that connects to the worldwide epidemic of obesity. Its purpose is to raise awareness and understanding of this devastating disease.
Update: The conference will be webcast. To see the agenda and find links to the sessions, click here.
Obesity is a medical term. It has to do with the relationship between body weight and height. When health care providers use the term, they mean it as a statement of fact, not a value judgment or insult.
Make no mistake about this: Nobody chooses to be obese. It may start as a lack of willpower, but then again, it may not. It may be a form of substance abuse, but while an alcoholic may learn techniques to avoid alcohol, a cocaine addict may become able to stay away from cocaine, and a smoker give up nicotine, an obese person cannot avoid food.
Scientists are only beginning to understand the similarities and differences between food addiction and other forms of dependence. With this understanding, one hopes, will come tools and techniques for curing the disease. Meanwhile, we can only hope for a societal change in attitude toward people who are obese. To blame a person for being obese is to blame the victim of an illness.
And, to a large extent, Western society is responsible for that illness. Children who watch TV on Saturday mornings see a commercial for some sugary food every five minutes. Many parents use food as a reward. Some withhold food for punishment. Such is our economic system that many parents must work two or three jobs each, leaving the children to pop sweet pastries in the toaster and call it dinner. Neighborhoods where poverty is the norm have few, if any, stores that sell fresh, unprocessed foods.
So serious is the problem that in 2004 the US surgeon general, Richard Carmona, said
Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits, and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Obesity is a rural issue. Rates of obesity and overweight are greater among people in rural areas than in cities or suburbs, according to the Journal of Rural Health, Spring 2004
Rural demographics may play some role in this difference. Rural residents tend to be older, less educated and have lower income than urban residents, and all of these factors are related to higher obesity levels. Even with other factors held equal, however, rural residents of every racial/ethnic group are at higher risk for obesity[….]
The summit will take place at IslandWood, a conference center on Bainbridge Island, Seattle, that is dedicated to modeling sustainable living. If I find time, I’ll tell you more while I’m there. If not, I’ll catch up with you next week.
I decided to be a freelance writer because I wanted people to pay me to learn stuff. This is going to be one of the many times that prove I chose the right occupation.