People create habits around substances, whether a cup of coffee, a cigarette, some wine after a busy day or a relaxing joint. But when does such behavior cross the line from habit to addiction? Have policymakers focused on too narrow a range of addictions, with the consequence that treatment for other conditions fail because they are not regarded as addictive behaviours too?

An addiction to food

An addiction to food

Addiction is generally accepted as a series of driven behaviours that cause harm to an individual, to those around them and to wider society. With any type of addiction there is a characteristic and similar pattern: an intense need to experience the substance or behaviour, rewarded by immediate positive effects, which, for the addict, override the perceived negative consequences that will follow in the longer term. And when those negative effects do kick in, the addict is drawn towards distress, creating a vicious circle of harmful behaviour.

Addiction begins with the hope that something out there can instantly fill up the emptiness inside (Jean Kilbourne, Author and Campaigner).

The currently accepted list of external substances includes narcotics, nicotine, caffeine and alcohol; whether people can become addicted to other substances, including foods like sugar, is a key area now being explored. And the second big challenge to the status quo is whether an external substance is even necessary for an addiction to be present. Could just behaviours – including sex, shopping, computer gaming, using porn, the internet, shopping, social media, tanning or eating – be classed as addictions?

In The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) there are 11 symptoms they use to define substance addiction, where a person experiencing two or three is said to have a mild disorder, with four or five pointing to a moderate disorder, and six or more being indicative of a severe substance use disorder. Could these symptoms be equally applied to a behaviour? Try swapping the word ‘substance’ for ‘food’ in the following:

  1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than was intended
  2. Persistently wanting to cut down or stop using the substance, but not managing to
  3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance
  4. Cravings and urges to use the substance
  5. Recurrent use of the substance resulting in failure to manage work, home or school
  6. Continuing to use despite it causing problems in relationships or socially
  7. Reducing or forgoing social, occupational or recreational activities because of substance use
  8. Using substances again and again, even when it’s harmful to do so
  9. Continuing to use, despite being aware of a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused by the substance
  10. Needing more of the substance to get the desired effect (tolerance)
  11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be avoided or relieved by taking more of the substance  

Do you recognise any of those symptoms in yourself or others? Would an obese person experience any of these symptoms? The answer is a blindingly obvious: yes.

Even much of the slimming industry is missing the point: it is the rare organisation that goes further than handing out diet sheets and just paying lip service to the underlying psychological drivers of obesity. This is, at best, a mistake, and at worst it’s part of a great big lie. Solutions such as LighterLife utilise nutritious plans alongside counselling to help those suffering from food addiction.

Our impulses are like cords and strings, which pull us different and opposite actions, and herein lies the difference between virtue and vice (Plato).

From clinicians to politicians, pundits to patients, when it comes to tackling obesity we have been led off down a very narrow road. Despite there being such similarities between using food, alcoholics using drink, or drug users snorting coke, very few learnings have been taken from the world of addiction to be applied to tackling obesity. As a society, we’re missing a trick and reaping the consequences.

LighterLife combines effective, nutritious plans to help you quickly reach the weight you want, with ground breaking counselling techniques so you can change how you think about food, develop a much healthier approach to eating (and life in general) and live the life you want. Find out more at For more articles like this, subscribe to Broccoli & Brains magazine at

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