Is food addiction to blame for obesity? Not entirely, researchers found


Obesity is a global public health issue, which is becoming notoriously difficult to treat. Rates have nearly tripled since 1975, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and could be a result of factors such as inexpensive, high-calorie foods and leading a sedentary lifestyle.

South Africa is no exception, and is also battling a high obesity rate, the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa’s chief executive, Professor Pamela Naidoo told the Cape Times.

But blaming addiction for obesity is a simplistic way of looking at the situation, a large analysis of personality studies has found. The analysis, published in Nature Human Behavior, indicates that while obese people do behave somewhat like people with alcohol or drug addiction, the addiction model isn't entirely applicable.

This probed a research team, led by Dr Alain Dagher at the Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) to seek new ways to measure behaviours and those linked to obesity, as well as those linked to well-known addictive behaviours, in search of common threads.

The study

In the study, a former postdoctoral fellow in Dagher’ lab, Uku Vianjik, who is now with the University of Estonia, Tartu, selected existing studies on obesity and addiction and sought to identify related personality traits. 

NEO Personality Inventory, a common personality test, measures 30 facets of how people think, feel and behave, with example facets including people who are impulsive, assertive, or altruistic. The test gives participants a score on what are known as the “Big 5” personality traits: agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness.

Researchers compared personality profiles against data from 18 611 participants across 22 studies, and found that addictions had highly similar personality profiles, suggesting a strong behavioural overlap.

However, the interesting finding was that the link between obesity and overeating was considerably weaker – by contrast, the personality traits in obesity overlapped more greatly with mood disorders and some personality disorders, proving that obesity is a complex condition that the addiction model cannot fully explain.

“Our research suggests that obesity treatments may benefit from borrowing methods from addiction treatments to improve people’s self-control capabilities,” Dagher said in a statement, adding that the results suggest that researchers should take any useful information from the limited similarities between obesity and addictions, and then look elsewhere to fully comprehend the behavioural profile of obesity.

‘Double burden of disease’

A sugary drink here, a mouth-watering fast food meal there – before you submit to that craving, consider the damaging health effects it may result in, including overweight and obesity.

Many low- and middle-income countries are what the WHO calls a "double burden" of disease, meaning that while these countries face diseases and undernutrition, they are also experiencing a rapid upsurge in non-communicable disease risk factors, such as obesity and overweight, which, in turn, increases one's risk for heart disease.

Research by a South African physician indicates that 70% of men in South Africa face health risks due to being overweight, and an alarming 20% of men are obese, News24 reports (and SA women are not far behind). According to Hudson, men’s food portions are simply too big, and they tend to consume more fat, protein, alcohol and soft drinks than women.

The fight against fat – curbing obesity

If behaviour patterns aren’t changed, the burden of this lifestyle-related disease will only escalate. According to the 2019 UN report, obesity contributes to an estimated four million deaths worldwide and costs the economy approximately $2 trillion (about R30 trillion) annually. 

The WHO recommends that overweight and obesity can be reduced if people limit their fat and sugar intake; increase their consumption of fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts; and engage in at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week.

Image: iStock

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