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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Obesity, An Addiction?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 22nd 2012

Obesity, An Addiction?Society tends to judge obese people in the most unkind ways possible. They are viewed as sloppy people who only care about overly indulgent with food and who have total disregard for their health and appearance. However, psychology and modern medicine have delved deeply into this problem because obesity has become an epidemic health problem in the United States. Such variables as genetics, too much television viewing with decreased exercise, television advertising that focuses on fast foods, consuming high fat and calorie fast foods and many other factors considered to be among the many factors that contribute to the problem of obesity. Now, another factor that may be of prime importance is being explored as a possible cause of obesity. That factor is that obesity may be an addiction much like with heroin, alcohol and other drugs. The difference is that you can learn to stop using substances but you must eat to live.

It is because food is a necessity of life that it's so resistant to treatment. Also, food is everywhere. In addition to our refrigerators, advertisements for food flood television. Basically, the abundance of food actually worsens the problem of obesity.

According to the American Psychological Association, heavy people tend to marry other heavy people, increasing the likelihood that any genes for weight will be passed on the next generation. Add to that the fact that children learn from observing the behavior of their parents, the poor eating habits of parents children are learned and imitated by their children.

Stress is another explanation for why there is such an increase of over weight and obesity in the United States. There is a real tendency to handle emotional problems by increasing the amount of food that is eaten. Lack of exercise, increased stress, inadequate amounts of sleep and emotional eating are all important factors in why there is such an increase in obesity throughout the United States.

Now, there is evidence that obesity may result from an addiction to food. In fact, there are certain types of food that may be implicated in the addiction process.  MRI studies show that the same parts of the brain are stimulated when obese people eat as when addicts use their substances. The reward pathway in the brain are stimulated with the result that the feeling of wanting more is never turned off as it is for those who do not have an over eating disorder. Furthermore, there is evidence that the flood of dopamine, the pleasure hormone is increased with over eating but does not shut down after a full meal.

In my experience in working with people afflicted with eating disorders, they seem to have no knowledge of when and where to eat. There is no sense of routine. In other words, rather than having a time for breakfast, lunch and dinner, food is eaten "on the run." These people will eat while on the bus to work, while walking down the street or whenever the impulse motivates them to.

Part of over coming the problem of obesity is not simply to eat less and diets do not work. There are issues of bringing discipline and organization into meals. This involves learning to eat meals at home, at a table and with family or friends around. There is also the matter of learning what foods to eat and what foods have little or no nutritional value. With regard to the emotional features of over eating, psychotherapy is always a good idea so that fears about looking thinner can be overcome. Finally, there is the importance of appropriate amounts of exercises that are designed for good health and getting to and maintaining a healthy weight.

What are your experiences with eating and emotional eating? You comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Would't it be nice? - Myrna C. - Oct 22nd 2012

I agree that obesity is an addiction. The addiction process added to food is filmed on programs like 20/20. The nutritional value of the food is taken out and scientists reengineer the taste so that the consumer will be addicted to the flavor.

Also, those that are obese when they are adults are likely not taught self-control. Giving in to a short term impulse over a long term goal can make anyone experience that they are not in control of their actions. I hear it all the time...people placing blame in everyone else except themselves.

Finally, those people that give in to stereotype of any kind are people with small minds that need to educate themselves. Obesity is linked to low educated, low income persons. More than the food epidemic in this country, is the addiction for materialism in general. We ought to be a nation intellectual freedom over being controlled by a consumer market.

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