The rise in cases of obesity and mental illness has coincided, suggesting the two may be linked, a University of Newcastle researcher says.
“There is substantial overlap between addictive eating with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression,” Associate Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics Tracy Burrows said.
Dr Burrows said mental-health disorders including depression and disordered eating had been linked to obesity.
“The link between the conditions needs further explanation, as it’s likely to be a two-way relationship.”
For some people, depression may lead to increased weight and vice versa.
“This might then have a spiralling effect,” she said.
Dr Burrows’ comments come as her team of researchers develop an online program to help people deal with food addiction. The program aims to give people coping skills to reduce the amount of food they eat.
It’s a collaboration between University of Newcastle, Hunter Medical Research Institute and University of Queensland. Dr Burrows’ team has reviewed treatments for addictive eating.
Evidence-based programs run by qualified health professionals were found to be scarce.
As such, the team moved to develop and trial its own program, using dietitians, psychologists, neuroscientists, occupational therapists and health researchers.
Research has shown that about 20 per cent of people have a food addiction.
The symptoms include cravings, withdrawals and repeated attempts to cut down or quit certain foods.
Dr Burrows says food addiction can be likened to addiction to substances such as alcohol and drugs.
“It also has similarities with behavioural addictions such as gambling,” she said.
“Neuroimaging studies have shown that junk foods as well as beverages increase dopamine levels in reward pathways.”
Consumption of these foods over time may cause a reduction in dopamine activity.
These changes were thought to explain the emergence of symptoms of food addiction, including withdrawal and tolerance.
“In some individuals, this may lead to the over-consumption of specific foods in order to achieve the same rewarding effect,” she said.
Many diet and exercise plans for this condition fail because they don’t address the underlying psychological causes.
“The increased availability and access to food makes it difficult for people with weight-related conditions to change behaviour,” she said.
This was particularly the case for people who were susceptible to “food cues such as images and smells”.
Dr Burrows said food was “consumed for a variety of reasons”.
Texture and crunchiness were factors, along with the irresistible nature of some foods – particularly those loaded with fat, sugar and salt.
Dr Burrows’ team is seeking Australian men and women aged 18 and over who are above their healthy weight and exhibit symptoms of addictive eating to take part in a trial of the new program.
Visit this website for more details, tinyurl.com/FoodFix or call 4921-5514.