Understanding the Relationship Between Obesity and Addiction

When we think of addiction, we often think of drugs and alcohol (alcohol also being a drug, of course) but the reality is we can actually be addicted to anything—including food and certain kinds of food.

There is also a connection between alcohol and overeating, as many people have experienced that need to overeat when drinking or at the end of a boozy night. Our inhibitions are down, and our bodies are craving food as a means of buffering ourselves from the effects of alcohol.

Binge-eating disorder (BED) and its counterpart, night-eating syndrome (NES), are diagnosable types of eating disorders. Eating disorders are a type of mental disorder, and in fact, some eating disorders—like anorexia nervosa—are some of the deadliest and more under-diagnosed of mental disorders.

What is Binge Eating?

Everyone over-indulges from time to time, but binge eating as a disorder was first coined by Albert Stunkard in 1959. It presents as consuming copious amounts of food, and the person usually enters a trance-like state during this time.

It might be followed by purging (bulimia nervosa) or not. During a binge, the person isn’t actually experiencing any kind of joy from the food. In fact, it’s often a painful experience on both a physical and emotional level. If purging is part of bingeing, it might be used as a means to keep eating.

Night-eating syndrome is typically a binge that occurs late in the evening or at night. It was also coined by Stunkard in the mid-century, along with other researchers. However, NES usually begins by a type of short-term “anorexia” in the beginning of the day. A familiar image of NES is the person who starves themselves all day and builds up a ravenous appetite that concludes in a binge late at night.

Both BED and NES are usually performed in private. Most people have forgotten to eat, or they’ve put off eating during the day only to overeat at night, but these occasional instances are not NES. BED and NES become a disorder when they happen routinely.

Why We Have Food Addiction

There are various reasons we have addictions to food and perhaps complementary disorders, such as BED. It’s pretty well established that families and addiction often go hand in hand. There are genetic components to eating disorders, but we also learn our relationships with food (for better or worse) from our families and friends.

For example, if our parents “reward” or bribe us with junk food, we come to associate food as comfort and will do the same to ourselves as adults. Contrarily, if treats are kept from us as punishment, we may grow into adults who overcompensate and treat ourselves too often.

There is also the issue of so many addictive substances found in today’s convenience food. Processed sugar is a prime example. Sugar is truly addictive, and there have been numerous accounts of this.

Few of us depend entirely on the natural sugars found in fruits and instead have a genuine addiction to processed sugars. Unlike illegal drugs, we have been given the sugar-drug freely since we were children. Many of us are also “born addicts,” as our birth mothers typically consumed at least some processed sugar while we were in utero. It’s tough to break a lifelong drug habit!

Too much food, especially empty-calorie foods rich in sugar, naturally leads to obesity. Unfortunately, we don’t think of food as “addictive” or as overeating as a disorder, even though they are. Understanding the foundations of our addiction through the help of a skilled mental health expert is the first step in a journey of lifelong recovery.

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