A new analysis shows that obese people who struggle with uncontrolled eating behave somewhat like those with addictions to alcohol or drugs.
At the same time, the findings show that obesity is a complex condition that cannot be fully explained by the addiction model. In fact, the researchers found that obesity shared behavioral overlap with mood disorders and certain personality disorders.
Obesity rates have tripled since 1975, according to the World Health Organization. This is likely driven by the increased availability of inexpensive, high-calorie food.
And while the loss of control some people experience with food leads some researchers to blame obesity on food addiction, others point out that food is a basic need and does not have addictive molecules, like nicotine or caffeine.
This controversy inspired a research team led by Dr. Alain Dagher from The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) to investigate ways to measure the behavioral similarities and differences that obesity has with addictive behaviors, as well as with psychiatric disorders.
First author Dr. Uku Vainik, a former postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dagher, now with The University of Estonia, Tartu, turned to existing studies linking obesity and addiction to personality traits.
The most common personality test, called the NEO Personality Inventory, measures 30 facets related to how people think, feel, and behave. Example facets are assertiveness, altruism and impulsiveness.
The test gives participants a score in the “Big 5” personality traits: Agreeableness, Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, and Openness. Linking personality test scores with body weight or addictive behaviors provided researchers unique personality profiles of obesity and addictive behaviors.
The team compared these personality profiles among the data of 18,611 participants. They found that all addictions had very similar personality profiles, suggesting a significant behavioral overlap.
For example, addictions were behaviorally similar to uncontrolled eating. And while obesity was also behaviorally linked to addictions, that link was considerably weaker. The scientists were surprised to find that obesity also shared behavioral overlap with mood disorders and certain personality disorders.
“Our research suggests that obesity treatments may benefit from borrowing methods from addiction treatments to improve people’s self-control capabilities,” said Dagher.
“However, obesity treatments should not focus on how people with addictions handle sensation-seeking, as this is not as much of an issue for people with obesity. Current results suggest that we should take whatever is useful from the limited similarities that obesity and addictions share, and then look elsewhere to fully comprehend the behavioural profile of obesity.”
Source: McGill University