Food addiction could be one of the reasons behind the rising number of individuals suffering from eating disorders and obesity, scientists have said.
Food is not currently included in the official diagnostic manual of addictive substances, but scientists believe excessive over-eating shares many of the psychological characteristics associated with other addictions, such as gambling and compulsive stealing.
A €6m project is under way to determine whether over-eating can be categorised as a potentially addictive behaviour. This could lead to certain foods being classed as addictive, alongside alcohol and drugs, said Professor Julian Mercer of Aberdeen University.
"How and why food could be addictive is being explored to ascertain whether this is one of the reasons why people eat too much and develop obesity," Professor Mercer said.
In the next five years, the NeuroFast project will bring together experts from across Europe to determine if overeating should be treated similarly to other addictive behaviour. "If we can reach a consensus on how overeating should be classified, this could lead to major changes in treatment and public policy surrounding obesity," Professor Mercer told the British Science Festival. "It would help to clarify if food addiction is a route to binge eating or obesity."
Professor Mercer explained that compulsive overeating shares many of the features of other addictive behaviour, and the most likely people to suffer food addiction are the estimated one in 200 individuals who develop severe eating disorders associated with obesity.
"This would most likely fit in at the extreme end with people who have binge-like eating disorders," Professor Mercer said. "Palatable food is appealing because it activates reward centres in the brain, triggering signalling molecules in the opioid and dopamine systems. These same systems are triggered when we use drugs or alcohol."
Case study: 'Gastric band saved my life'
Actress Tina Malone, one of the stars of Channel 4's "Shameless", admits food addiction almost killed her. At 5ft 1in she weighed 19 stone and her health was suffering.
She successfully gave up alcohol, which nearly became her nemesis, but food was a different matter. "I was the classic emotional eater. I would eat if I was bored and would eat if I was happy. I couldn't just have one Kit Kat, I would have to have four or five. After a takeaway I would often have another one," she said. "I know how that sounds and people must have wondered why I couldn't just stop eating. I am an intelligent woman – don't you think if it was that easy I would have done that?"
She had a gastric band fitted in 2010 and has since lost 10 stone. "It saved my life," she said.