Last week I attended a conference on eating disorders at a leading teaching hospital in New York City. At the conference, one of the presenters suggested obesity should be viewed as an addictive disorder and treated accordingly. While the academic and researcher in me understood the thought process behind this classification, the human being in me had some concerns.
From a scientific standpoint, obesity as an addiction makes sense. In fact, two researchers by the names of Volkow and Wise, wrote a very compelling article about this concept in an article for the American Journal of Psychiatry. In the article, the authors found obesity shares some common characteristics with other addictions. These include:
- The phenomenon of craving. (People who are overweight crave certain food types like sugar and fat)
- Increased tolerance. (In order to feel satisfied, people who are overweight require greater amounts of food)
- Symptoms of withdraw. (People who are overweight get distressed when they cut back on their food consumption)
There is also a great deal of similarity in how food, alcohol and drugs impact our brains. Just like when an alcoholic takes a drink, when a person eats a delicious food (think ice cream) the pleasure centers in our brains light up like nightfall on the Fourth of July. Obesity results because our brain needs more and more of the food to get that original kick.
What bothers me about viewing obesity as an addictive disorder is that through this classification, we may be adding to the shame and stigma of being overweight. Not only must a person manage the social and cultural stereotypes that come with being physically overweight, but now they will be also forced to manage the negative stereotypes that come with a mental illness.
In my mind, a better approach is to treat obesity as a physical condition that can be corrected by harnessing the healing power found in our minds, bodies and the people who surround us. By balancing healthy life style choices with loving self-acceptance, people who struggle with their weight can achieve a level of health that honors their individual spirit and avoids classifying them as mentally ill.
Certainly there is value in coming up with new ways to approach the treatment of obesity. Losing and managing weight is an incredibly difficult task. It requires courage, resolve and the love and support of others and ourselves. In coming up with new theories to treat it, however, we must be careful to guard against adding another stigma to human beings who already carry a painful load.