As Singapore’s waistlines expand, could food addiction be the cause of the obesity epidemic?

Does Singapore s rising obesity rate signal a food addiction problem

In recent years, waistlines across Singapore have been expanding causing national concern because of the negative health impacts associated with obesity. They include diabetes, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal disorders, and even depression. Moreover, obesity decreases the quality and length of life and increases national health care costs.

However, the common solution to obesity, which is eat less and exercise more does not seem to address the underlying causes — for a 2010 national survey found one in nine Singaporeans to be obese and the figure has been rising by 1% annually. Could Singapore’s rising obesity rates be caused by food addiction?

Causes of obesity

Obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) over 30 and commonly cited as being caused by a high calorie intake, a sedentary lifestyle or a thyroid disorder. The World Health Organisation found a strong link between income and obesity, with the prevalence of overweight [people] in high income and upper middle income countries being more than double that of low and lower middle income countries. Frequently obesity is also linked to the amount and types of food that we eat, with junk, convenience and sugary foods being the biggest causes due to the amount of calories in the food and the ease of accessibility. So having a higher income and access to fast and convenient food are two probable causes of obesity, possibly because of the sedentary lifestyle that individuals in these two categories can afford to lead.

However there is also growing evidence that people can get addicted to sugar or food because of the good feelings associated with certain foods. There is even evidence that sugary foods can give you a similar cognitive experience to people addicted to drugs. Studies on rats show that both drugs (such as cocaine and morphine) and sugar activate the part of the brain that controls pleasure. Therefore if food and sugar are capable of affecting the brain’s reward system then obesity is much more likely to be the result of a process addiction — whereby the person gets pleasure from food and becomes addicted to getting that reward. This means that we need to look at treating obesity differently, tackle the problem as if it were an addiction and look at the factors and processes contributing to individual cases, for example high stress levels, sugar cravings and eating for comfort or distraction.

Food addiction signs

Food addiction is much harder to recognise than other addictions because we all have to eat on a daily basis — but signals such as craving sweet, sugary or salty food, binging, overeating and weight gain all point toward an unhealthy addiction to food. If you think you may have a problem then a good place to start is by taking The Cabin’s food addiction quiz. It can help highlight common issues people have with food and also help you understand whether you might have an addiction. Obesity lies at the extreme end of a food addiction but is rarely treated as such. In the United States of America obesity has been a problem for decades and yet traditional ways of tackling it (such as Michelle Obama’s Move it campaign) have been failing. Luckily there is a slow realisation that many cases of obesity are in fact linked to food addiction and a different approach is needed. One example is an organisation called Overeaters Anonymous, which deals with obesity and overeating in a similar way to the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step programme.

Other contributing factors

As well as an addiction, obesity can also be caused by lifestyle factors. High stress levels at work, which is common in Singapore, can cause us to reach for comfort foods as a way to relax or unwind after a stressful day. Failing to get 8 hours of sleep a night can reduce your ability to make good decisions and leave you reaching for a sugary snack to boost your energy during the day, while leaving you too tired to exercise in the evening. Long hours at work can leave you with little time to exercise or cook healthy meals, and weekends spent partying can leave you craving fatty foods to soothe hangovers.

How to tackle food addiction and obesity?

If you think you are suffering from either obesity or a food addiction the first step is to ask for help. This help can come from your family members, your local doctor or in the form of a professional therapist.  Having support from the start can make the recovery process easier to deal with and more successful in the long run. Cutting out junk food, unhealthy snacks and comfort foods are important in tackling obesity, but it is equally important to identify and address the triggers that make you reach for those foods in the first place.

Furthermore, sometimes food addictions are harder to deal with than drugs or alcohol because food is such an integral part of our lives and cannot be completely cut out. Educating yourself about food addiction and how to live a healthy life is essential to coping and overcoming this addiction. One useful read is the e-book How do Food Addicts Abstain from Food, which gives useful tips to follow and apply to everyday life.

As Singapore’s obesity rates continue to rise the reasons behind the weight gain are becoming even more important and the traditional advice of eating less and exercising more is outdated. For people suffering from obesity understanding the reasons behind their cravings, educating themselves about food addiction and seeking help from professionals is becoming even more essential in order to solve this growing nationwide problem.