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Food as a drug: Survey reveals the high-fat 'buzz' can be like an addiction

Slimming World | Slimming World

5 min read Partner content

Cravings for food can feel like an addiction to cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, a survey of 5,000 slimmers found. And people who get these food cravings feel they are judged by society in a similar way to people who are addicted to controlled substances.

The survey of 5,139 Slimming World members was conducted ahead of a BBC2 documentary looking at the way people's emotions are affected by food, how the world we live in encourages people to eat unhealthily and how slimming clubs support people to make healthier choices and manage their weight.

The survey found that 76 per cent of slimmers compare their cravings for high-fat food to the cravings addicts feel for cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, with more than half (55 per cent) saying they had got 'a buzz' out of those foods in the past. Two out of three respondents (67 per cent) also felt that society judges people who have a difficult relationship with food in a similar way to how it judges smokers, alcoholics and drug-users.

The poll revealed that most slimmers had tried using food to make themselves feel better when they were feeling low, with 94 per cent having previously turned to high-fat food to try to boost their mood.

However, 77 per cent said that while it made them feel better initially, they had felt much worse afterwards. A further 83 per cent reported feeling like a failure or criticising themselves for not being able to stick to a diet in the past.

As well as the difficulties of dealing with their emotions, slimmers also felt challenged by a food environment that encourages unhealthy eating.

Three out of four respondents (76 per cent) said they felt 'bombarded' by advertisements for unhealthy food and most (89 per cent) said the modern world made it easier to eat unhealthily than healthily. Getting an unhealthy meal or snack in their local area after 10pm would be 'very easy' for 78 per cent of respondents, but only four per cent felt it would be very easy to get a healthy meal or snack.

"We live in world that encourages people to eat more unhealthily," says Dr James Stubbs, Slimming World research specialist. "People get used to using certain foods as a way to try to make themselves feel better and it becomes a habit, so when they're feeling down they're always likely to turn to those foods and it quickly becomes a cycle. With high-fat and high-sugar foods being so readily available it's really difficult for people to ignore those signals.

"There is growing evidence that high fat, high sugar foods have some addictive qualities and this survey suggests that slimmers feel trapped by food cravings, aggressive marketing and easy availability of less healthy foods.

"The real danger is that it's very easy for people to enter into a vicious cycle where they try to take comfort in food when they're feeling down, but then feel guilty and judged for what they perceive as a lack of self-control. These feelings of failure and sense of feeling judged affect self-esteem and so people take comfort in food again - and so the cycle continues."

The BBC documentary 'Welcome to the World of Weight Loss', which airs on BBC2 on Wednesday August 21st at 9pm, will look at how clubs like Slimming World support people to understand their emotional attachment to food and manage their weight, while enjoying the sense of community in a journey taken with other people in a similar position - rather than the long hard slog of going it alone.

Slimming World members who had previously tried dieting alone were most likely to have found the experience 'confusing' (39 per cent) because there was no way of knowing if they were doing it right, while 21 per cent described it as 'hell' as they had no one to talk to. On the other hand, members noted friendship (45 per cent), camaraderie (46 per cent), inspiration from others like me (76 per cent), motivation (82 per cent), structure (61 per cent) and support (77 per cent) as key reasons for their success at Slimming World.

Nine out of 10 (88 per cent) slimmers reported being more successful in their weight loss since joining Slimming World than they were going it alone. The survey revealed that 82 per cent of members felt they have a 'better relationship with food' as a result of joining a Slimming World group. Attending group meetings every week was a priority for 82 per cent of members, with 42 per cent saying "It's the one night of the week I wouldn't miss."

Dr Stubbs continued: "The group support provided by slimming clubs, and this is especially true of Slimming World where the emphasis is on caring and compassionate understanding, helps to create a safe environment where slimmers can share support with a community of people just like them. Having the care of an empathetic Consultant who has lost weight themselves and the understanding of their fellow members, helps slimmers to understand and feel less guilty about their choices, so they're less likely to give themselves a hard time.

"Being part of the group provides motivation and gives people the confidence to make their own decisions. In a world that encourages people to make unhealthy choices, having the skills and knowledge to eat healthily and the confidence to take responsibility for your own decisions makes healthy eating much easier. The survey revealed that 87 per cent of our slimmers feel confident in maintaining these healthier habits in the future."

Read the most recent article written by Slimming World - Top UK firms back ground-breaking Government health campaign

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