Experts compare the disorder to individuals who compulsively gamble or steal
Food addiction could be responsible for the rising number of people suffering from obesity and eating disorders, scientists believe.
Scientists believe around one in 200 people could be suffering from the condition and are investigating the possibility that in many cases over-eating is caused by behavioural addiction.
Changes in the way psychiatrists view addiction could in future see food abuse become a diagnosable condition.
A small proportion of people with binge-eating disorders - maybe 0.5 per cent of the general population - fit most of the criteria for addiction, it is believed.
Many experts think they suffer from a similar problem as individuals who compulsively gamble or steal.
Currently such patterns of behaviour are categorised as 'impulse control disorders' rather than addictions.
But this is set to change with publication of the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM), which lays out diagnosis rules for psychiatrists.
Experts are now discussing whether compulsive eating can be classified as a behavioural addiction.
A £5 million EU research project called NeuroFAST has been set up to examine the evidence, bringing together scientists from seven European countries.
One of those involved, Professor Julian Mercer, from the University of Aberdeen, said: 'If we can reach a consensus on how over-eating should be classified, this could lead to major changes in clinical treatment and public policy surrounding obesity.
'It would help firstly to clarify if food addiction is a route to binge-eating or obesity. Recognition of different routes to overweight and obesity could lead to more targeted treatments for defined groups, giving individuals clinical help which is specific and pertinent to their situation.
Experts are now discussing whether compulsive eating can be
classified as a behavioural addiction
'In future, over-eating could be recognised as the consequence of food addiction in a small group of individuals, and the treatment they are offered may have convergence with that which is offered to drug/alcohol abusers.'
Recognised signs of addiction include tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, persistent desire, an inability to stop despite physical and psychological consequences, risky behaviour, and devoting a lot of time to appeasing cravings.
Many of these are displayed by certain people who eat uncontrollably.
Dr Ozgur Albayrak, another NeuroFAST scientist from the University of Essen in Germany, said: 'Food addiction possibly does not refer to a majority of over eaters but only a small sub group with disordered eating behaviours. There may be a prevalence of half a per cent.'
The issue of food addiction was discussed at the British Science Festival, taking place at the University of Aberdeen.
Yesterday a workshop was held where people were asked about their views on the subject.
Prof Mercer said about half the audience believed they were food addicts, or claimed to know someone who was one.
'The public out there are getting lots of messages saying food is just as addictive as some substances of abuse, so it’s a confusing picture,' he said.
'It might make more sense for eating behaviours to be classified into a kind of behavioural addiction rather than a chemical addiction.
'Most likely where this would fit in would be at the extreme end of people with binge-eating disorder where there appears to be a spectrum of behaviours that do mimic some of the behaviours that would be used to classify other, chemical, addictions.'
Dr Albayrak stressed that addictive binge-eating had nothing to do with bulimia, an eating disorder caused by an obsessive desire to lose weight.
People with bulimia refuse food and then gave in to an uncontrollable urge to eat, after which they often make themselves sick.
In many cases, binge-eaters also had an alcohol problem, Dr Albayrak added.
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'Food addiction' may be fuelling obesity crisis as scientists believe one in 200 people could be suffering from the condition | Mail Online