A leading appetite and obesity expert has called on health professionals not to "pyschopathologise the obese" as their apparently addictive response is a natural response to our food environment which "pushes food and beverages high in fat, sugar and salt".

Speaking at the FAB Research Conference - Sugar, Fat, Food & Addiction, last week [10 July] Professor Jason Halford said behavioural addiction to key foods and combinations of nutrients does appear to be a significant problem for some inidviduals , and the concept of 'food addiction' fits well with the increasingly common phenoma of 'binge eating' and 'comfort eating'.

He went on to describe how appetite control, and failure to control appetite, can be understood on behavioural, nutritional and phsiological levels.

"The concept of the 'satiety cascade' allows us to understand how food components influence the factors that trigger, sustain, terminate and further inhibit food intake," explained the chair-elect of the UK Association for the Study of Obesity.

"In pure energy terms, all calories are equal whatever their source - but in behavioural terms they may not be. The addition of sugar and fats to foods and beverages can significantly increase their energy density, undermining short-term episodic appetite control, leading to passive over-consumption at the eating episode.

"Furthermore, their post-consumption effect on appetite may be comparatively short in duration - thus hastening the onset of the next eating occassion. As sugars tend to have only transient effects in reducing appetite, this could lead to weaker post-meal satiety, leading to subsequent over-consumption through incomplete caloric compensation at the next meal."

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Prof Halford also raised major concerns over the role of sweetness in influencing consumption, suggesting that this is a more influential factor than the pure physiological effects of sugars upon appetite control mechanisms.

"Palatability delays satiation, and hyper-palatability can contribute to active over-consumption - both triggering and sustaining eating episodes and over-riding appetite control," he said.

"On an individual level this consistent with a behavioural food addction and, more generally, the difficulties experienced by the obese in controlling their appetite. However, the operation of active over-consumption must be considered in the wider context of the environment  - not only the immediate environment it is expressed in but the broader food environment that has shaped it over a lifetime."

He concluded by calling for action against the extensive promotion and ease of access to highly palatable, energy dense foods which are "cheap, convenient and ubiquitous" and have distinct effects on both the homeostatic and hedonic mechanisms that are crucial to appetite expression.
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