Britain is heading towards a comfort-eating health crisis because millions of people are becoming addicted to sugary and fat-rich foods, new research has revealed.
At least 11 million of us have an unhealthy relationship with food, according to medical experts who claim that in some cases eating to feel better is now a severe clinical problem distinct from eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.
One consultant says that "chocoholics" have more in common with alcoholics than people with "traditional" eating disorders. Dr Alex Yellowlees, an eating disorder expert with the Priory group, said: " 'Chocoholism' is a psychological and physical dependency on a substance that just happens to come nicely wrapped. We do see some people who have developed an addiction to it and consume vast quantities. These people have more in common with alcoholics than those with eating disorders."
The whole problem of "indulgence eating" has been highlighted by research commissioned by the Priory, the country's best-known rehabilitation clinic. As a result, it has now opened a specialist eating disorders unit for the first time. This will treat, among other cases, eaters who are over-indulgers, some of whom are eating themselves to an early grave.
Dr Peter Rowan, a Consultant psychiatrist, said: "Eating disorders are increasingly affecting female high-achievers in their mid-thirties to mid-fifties."
This trend departs from what has been seen as the classic problem eater: the overweight couch potato who does not eat fruit or vegetables. So is eating indulgence somehow related to the modern "have-it-all" philosophy, or a way of coping with stress?
The television presenter Anne Diamond, who recently admitted to having a gastric band fitted to help her control her yoyo-ing weight, seems to blame stress. She has said: "You can tell how life is going for me by what's in my fridge. If I'm on a high, it's full of fruit and vegetables, tubs of home-made soups, veggie burgers, pies and casseroles. That's because I'm feeling in control and I can make rational, sensible decisions about what I eat. But when I feel life is getting on top of me, there's only 'instant gratification' food - pizzas, crumpets, bagels and muffins. I stock up on 'depression food' for the bad days."
Julia Carling, who rode a public and emotional rollercoaster over her break-up from former England rugby captain Will Carling, also confessed to comfort eating: "I used to be a terrible chocoholic. If it's there I'll eat it. I usually end up eating the kids' sweets."
Not everyone sees food indulgence as a problem. Writer Julie Burchill says in the current Psychologies magazine: "Food is just another form of fun to me like drinking, drugs or sex. I regard eating disorders with absolute incomprehension, as I do alcoholism and drug addiction."
The Priory research also reveals that while 38 per cent of women are comfort eating out of boredom and 27 per cent because of stress, 63 per cent of adults say that if they feel overweight they lack self-esteem and feel unattractive.
Eating disorders carry the highest mortality rate of any mental heath issue, yet are not taken seriously, says the group. It believes that an " unacceptably high percentage" of people with these disorders go undiagnosed or untreated.
According to the Eating Disorders Association, people who have a poor relationship with food are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder such as bulimia or anorexia. A spokesman for the charity said: "People who are always trying different diets are more likely to increase their weight over time." Our dysfunctional relationship with food is borne out in recent surveys that show a majority of us say that feeling fat lowers our self-esteem, yet more than half of us head for chocolate when things get too much.
Professor Susie Orbach, the author of the book Fat Is A Feminist Issue and an expert on eating disorders, says that food is used from the early years as an escape. "From childhood, food is central to all of us," she said. "We're not supposed to feel pain or distress, then we are given food as a reward. We're diverting attention from distress with food. We should accept distress as a normal part of life and learn to cope with it."
But many find that difficult. A 44-year-old office administrator from Essex explained how her life has been ruined by foods that are high in sugar. "I used to wake up thinking that I'd eaten too much the day before but still feel hungry," said the woman, who was so embarrassed by her addiction that she would only give her name as Louise. "I'd then skip breakfast, only to get through five chocolate bars followed by a heavy lunch and cakes. It was very self-destructive.
"I started to realise that I had a problem. I couldn't just have one sweet but would eat the whole packet. I feel like an alcoholic. It calls to me. If I don't have anything I'm OK, but if I have something then I'll start to crave it. I turn to food for comfort and find it difficult to tell the difference between physical and emotional hunger."
Sugar and carbohydrate-rich food release the feel-good chemical serotonin in the brain, relieving stress and anxiety, but only for a short time. Many binge eaters are quickly overtaken by feelings of guilt, shame and concern about their weight, triggering another bout of bingeing.
Comfort-food addict Louise said that while she received intensive therapy to deal with her demons, her struggle with the addiction is far from over.
"I actually see some foods as being like poison to me now," she said. "I can remember desperately wanting sweet things from a very young age. If I eat something with high sugar content I start to really crave the stuff. I used to be a smoker and it's a bit like that desperate thing of wanting something that you know you shouldn't have."
* Rising obesity levels have led to a 10-fold increase in the number of children suffering from a type of diabetes normally seen in middle-aged adults over the past five years. The condition leads to heart disease, blindness, kidney failure and strokes, reports the Sunday Telegraph.
Amanda Lamb THE COMFORT EATER
As a former model, I do get obsessive because there is so much pressure to be thin. Food has always been about comfort. I eat when I'm happy and I eat when I'm depressed. If I'm having a traumatic time, I eat loads.
Tracey Boyd THE STRESS-BUSTER
I have a love-hate relationship with eating. I tend to eat what I want to for about three months and then rein back for a month or so. I do eat healthy meals, but it's tempting to buy nice chocolate.
Nigella Lawson THE FOOD ENTHUSIAST
Food. You love it, you hate it, you are threatened by it. Of course, I have had problems with food. I tend to put on weight when bad things happen. I never moan about my weight in front of my daughter, because I know how much damage that can cause.Reuse content