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.

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13 Responses to “Food Addiction and Obesity”

  1. Hi Miryam!
    Great to meet you at the conference.  Your website is beautiful.

  2. Having been a prisoner to the YoYo syndrome for many years, it was only when I found a nutrition counselor who helped me understand the difference between addiction control and what my slim sister called my “lack of willpower” that I was able to rise above my cravings for sugar, salt and fat. Not that I’m a Twiggy (remember her?) but these days I can walk up a flight of stairs without needing to stop for an energy drink and a power bar!

    Remember the old potato chip commercial with the jungle that nobody can eat just one? Turns out there’s some truth in that. Being thin is not a goal I could ever reach, my body likes the padding, so I gave up trying. But healthier and happier wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. And it turns out that it’s not so much limiting my choices, but portion control. I may not be able to eat just one, but I sure can stop at a handful.

    Thank you for a great post and a very nice site.

  3. […] The Back Forty Food Addiction and Obesity […]

  4. Keep up the good work. Provide more information on this and the result will be saving even one life from misery. Especially children in school need to have a chance for good food that feeds their brain and their bodies. It’s a hedge against the sweets and soda and worse, alcohol and other unhealthy habits they can pick up as adults to have had a healthy start.

  5. Incredible information! I wish I could say I am surprised but thinking about the American way of eating, it all rings true.

  6. I have been in recovery for 3 years and I have found that my self esteem and my relationship with food has changed.  I think that food is a fuel not to be used as a mind numbing agent.  No diet will work if the diet indistry worked it would be out of buisness.  What is needed is a lifestyle change, feeding my soul and nurishing my mind.  Being aware of what emotion I am trying to avoid.  Allowing myself to cry and grow up because I was a child in an adults body.

  7. Anyone who has been to AA meetings and learnt the prevalence of people descending to their knees in petition to their Higher Power, references of “GOD” and Our Lords Prayer recognizes that AA is a religion based on spirituality – just like Christianity.

  8. haha,The Motive of your blog is very Suit to me, I hope more alternate with you this theme.

  9. My english is not good but your site is well thought out and great looking also. I like to have same look for my website.

  10. very useful information….thank you for sharing

  11. You’re writing on the topic is quite interesting, at least at my opinion. seems as though you know a whole about this, and I think it’s great that you share this information online.

  12. I wrestled in my drug addiction for years. It’s hard to get clean!

  13. Some times its a pain in the ass to read what people wrote but this internet site is very user pleasant! .

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