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Fat’s life: Another look inside the world of feederism

Online letter from Jill to ‘Dr. Feeder’: “I am a feedee from Boston in desperate need of a feeder. I have tried dieting and I know my mission is to be fat. I feel I can’t do it alone. I fantasize about meeting a dominant man who is a Feeder…How do I get fat on my own? What foods? Can you give me a sample daily diet?”

Response to Jill’s letter from ‘Dr. Feeder’: “See my article ‘How To Get Fat‘. The kinds of foods don’t matter so much. Eat what you enjoy the most, especially if it’s fattening. The more you enjoy overeating, the more you will overeat. A lot of variety is also important”.

In a previous blog on fat fetishism, I noted that the fetish also included ‘feederism’ and ‘gaining’ in which sexual arousal and gratification is stimulated through the person (referred to as the ‘feedee’) gaining body fat. Feederism is a practice carried out by many fat admirers within the context of their sexual relationships and is where the individuals concerned obtain sexual gratification from the encouraging and gaining of body fat through excessive food eating. Sexual gratification may also be facilitated and/or enhanced the eating behaviour itself, and/or from the feedee becoming fatter – known as ‘gaining’ – where either one or both individuals in the sexual relationship participate in activities that result in the gaining of excess body fat.

Since writing my previous article on the topic, I have briefly written about feederism in two of my academic papers on sexual paraphilias (one in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in relation to a case study I wrote on fart fetishism, and the other in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions on how the internet has facilitated scientific research into paraphilias – see ‘Further reading’ below). However, I was also interviewed for the Discovery Channel’s television programme Forbidden about American Gabi Jones from Colorado (aka ‘Gaining Gabi’) who appeared in the episode ‘Pleasure and Pain’.

At the time when the television programme was being recorded, Gabi weighed 490 pounds and her sole aim was to get even fatter and heavier (before she became a feedee she was 250 pounds). It is also her career and her thousands of online fans pay money who pay $20 a month to watch her eat as well as sending her food to eat (you can check out her online website here, but pleased be warned that it contains explicit sexual content). She also claims that she becomes sexually aroused when eating excessively.

When I indulge, I never rush. I take my time and treat all meals as very sexual experiences. I love being fat and the idea of getting large excites me…For as long as I remember, I always loved the idea of getting softer and being this piece of art that I am creating…My body is a work of art”.

She claims she does it to show that women can be empowered and that fat can be sexy. She’s also a campaigner for ‘fat acceptance’. However, the (US) National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) is anti-feederism. The NAAFA exists “to help build a society in which people of every size are accepted with dignity and equality in all aspects of life” but has specifically noted in its manifesto that:

“NAAFA supports an individual’s right to control all choices concerning his or her own body. NAAFA opposes the practice of feeders, in which one partner in a sexual relationship expects and encourages another partner to gain weight…That all bodies, of all sizes, are joyous and that individuals of all sizes can and should expect and demand respect from sexual partners for their bodies just as they are. That people of all sizes become empowered to demand respect for their bodies in the context of sexual relationships, without attempting to lose or gain weight in order to win a partner’s approval or attract or retain that partner’s desire”.

At the time she was interviewed, Gabi had two ‘feeders’ – one male (Kenyon, from Kansas, US) and one female (nicknamed ‘Hearts’, from Colorado). As the show’s production notes reported:

“Kenyon lives in a small town in Kansas…Gabi says that Kenyon has actually been a fan of hers since he was 12 or 13 [years old], he discovered her online. Gabi says that she wouldn’t have anything to do with him because he was not of age, but after [Kenyon’s 18th birthday she] accepted him into her life as her food slave. Kenyon says that he had fantasized for years about feeding her live in person…He is now totally devoted to Gabi and she is happy to have him as part of her ‘chosen family’ and hopes to move him out from Kansas to Colorado to live with her fulltime someday soon…Hearts makes sure that Gabi has all the food she could want and need. Gabi also feeds her. It’s not a sexual thing or anything – ‘we’re not lesbians, we’re just really close friends’ – but when they feed each other it’s ‘sexy and fun’. They met in college at the start of this year and haven’t left each other’s side since…Hearts is also gaining. Gabi got her into it one day when they were lying on her bed and Hearts noticed how soft Gabi’s tummy was. This made her decide she wanted to get fat too. Hearts is currently 201 pounds and her goal weight is 400 pounds…Gabi says there are two types of gainers – ‘feedees’ who’ll eat anything and ‘foodees’ who’ll eat only quality food, not junk. Gabi says she identifies more with a foodie”.

Academically, there have been an increasing number of papers published over the last few years. For instance, Dr. Lesley Terry and her colleagues have also published papers on feederism in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. The first was a case study (which I outlined in my previous blog), and more recently an interesting experiment that assessed individuals’ arousal to feederism compared to ‘normal’ sexual activity and neutral activity. A total of 30 volunteers (15 men and 15 women) were assessed using penile plethysmography (for the males) and vaginal photoplethysmography (for the females) – none of who were feeders or feedees. The paper reported that:

The volunteers were all shown sexual, neutral, and feeding still images while listening to audio recordings of sexual, neutral, and feeding stories. Participants did not genitally respond to feeding stimuli. However, both men and women subjectively rated feeding stimuli as more sexually arousing than neutral stimuli…the results of this study provide limited, but suggestive, evidence that feederism may be an exaggeration of a more normative pattern of subjective sexual arousal in response to feeding stimuli that exists in the general population.

Dr. Ariane Prohaska has published papers on feederism in such journals as the International Journal of Social Science Studies and Deviant Behavior. In one of her studies, she carried out a content analysis of feederism-related websites and examining feederism within heterosexual relationships. She concluded that feederism websites can take many forms such as groups, advice sites, personal ads, and pornography. The content analysis also revealed that the internet is a place where fat women can find a community of similar others to support them”. She also noted that although feedersim has been classified as a transgressive sexual behaviour, it “usually mimics patriarchal sex in the process”. She also claimed that at its extreme “feederism is an abusive behavior dangerous to the partner (usually the woman) who desires to gain weight as quickly as possible”. As highlighted in the case of Gabi above, Dr. Prohaska concludes that feederism is a communal behavior, but she also notes:

[W]hen it comes to feederism, men are still in control of the behavior and of how women are portrayed and treated as feedees. Although some of the websites discussed here may be advancing transgressive ideas about fat women as sexual beings, the objectification of women as sex objects is further perpetuated by these same websites. Bodies matter; normative ideas about fat women and heterosexual sex offline are perpetuated online. The internet is patriarchal as offline society. At its extreme, ideas about control over women involve manipulating their bodies using dangerous means, and the lines between consent and sexual assault are blurred. Consent is a difficult term to define in a culture where patriarchal values about sex have been internalized by members of society. Still, the internet has the potential to create loving, supportive communities for people of size rather than exploitative communities that mimic the offline world”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Charles, K., & Palkowski, M. (2015). Feederism: Eating, Weight Gain, and Sexual Pleasure. Palgrave Macmillan.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The use of online methodologies in studying paraphilia: A review. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 143-150.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Eproctophilia in a young adult male: A case study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 1383-1386.

Haslam, D.W. (2014). Obesity and Sexuality. In Controversies in Obesity (pp. 45-51). London: Springer.

Kyrölä, K. (2011). Adults growing sideways: Feederist pornography and fantasies of infantilism. Lambda Nordica: Tidskrift om homosexualitet, 16(2-3), 128-158.

Monaghan, L. (2005). Big handsome men, bears, and others: Virtual constructions of ‘fat male embodiment’. Body and Society, 11, 81-111.

Murray, S. (2004). Locating aesthetics: Sexing the fat woman. Social Semiotics, 14, 237-247.

Prohaska, A. (2013). Feederism: Transgressive behavior or same old patriarchal sex? International Journal of Social Science Studies, 1(2), 104-112.

Prohaska, A. (2014). Help me get fat! Feederism as communal deviance on the internet. Deviant Behavior, 35(4), 263-274.

Swami, V. & Furnham, A. (2009). Big and beautiful: Attractiveness and health ratings of the female body by male ‘‘fat admirers’’. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 201-208.

Swami, V., & Tovee, M.J. (2006). The influence of body weight on the physical attractiveness preferences of feminist and non-feminist heterosexual women and lesbians. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30, 252-257.

Swami, V. & Tovee, M.J. (2009). Big beautiful women: the body size preferences of male fat admirers. Journal of Sex Research, 46, 89-96.

Terry, L. L., Suschinsky, K. D., Lalumiere, M. L., & Vasey, P. L. (2012). Feederism: an exaggeration of a normative mate selection preference? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(1), 249-260

Terry, L.L. & Vasey, P.L. (2011). Feederism in a woman. Archives of Sexial Behavior, 40, 639-645.

Sheathing troubles: The strange case of accidental condom inhalation

While researching a previous blog on condom snorting, I came across an interesting case study of ‘accidental condom inhalation’ (and no, I promise I am not making this up). The case dates back to 2004 and was published by Dr. C.L. Arya and colleagues in the Indian Journal of Chest Diseases and Allied Sciences (IJCDAS).

Anyone who has kids will know that (just out of curiosity) they commonly put things in their mouths. The IJCDAS paper made reference to a number of medical studies that have shown inhaled items include things that can be from the edible (nuts, seeds, beans, etc) to the non-edible (plastic objects, screws, needles, pins, etc). They also note that when inhaling such objects, it doesn’t always lead to immediate medical symptoms or complications (such as choking, wheezing, coughing, etc.). However, the case that Dr. Arya and colleagues reported on was a little out of the ordinary.

The case involved a 27-year-old woman who was a schoolteacher. For a six-month period she had been suffering from a persistent cough where she was coughing up mucus along with some pneumonia symptoms. Initial examination showed nothing of consequence. Further tests took place and the paper reported that:

“The chest radiographs carried out subsequently showed development of a non-homogeneous right upper lobe lesion, not resolving either with antibiotics or a four-month trial of an empirical anti-tuberculosis treatment instituted by various practitioners. No symptomatic relief was obtained with either therapy. [A later] chest radiograph demonstrated a right upper lobe collapse-consolidation of lung. The opacity led us to promptly carry out a video-bronchoscopy, which gave impression of a white membranous object protruding from the collapsed right upper lobe bronchus. On probing further, it was noticed to be an inverted bag-like structure ‘sitting’ in the bronchus and having a flap-like action. A rigid bronchoscopy was then performed and the object was easily removed with biopsy forceps, though, it tore into pieces during procedure”.

As you will have noted from the title of this blog, the pieces were identified as being from a condom. The woman and her husband eventually recalled to the medics (after much probing by the medics) that there was an incident that occurred where a condom had become loosened while the wife was performing oral sex on her husband. During this particular sexual act, the woman had experienced a bout of coughing and sneezing and without her knowing she had accidentally inhaled her husband’s condom.

One of the reasons that the accidental inhalation went unnoticed for so long was because the inhaled object was of “soft, elastic and rubbery consistency that [was] unlikely to cause a direct lung injury”. The authors noted that:

“The airway obstruction of the right upper lobe segments produced by [the condom], could have resulted in the retention of secretions and the infection of corresponding lung segments, which may have become radiologically visible as a non-homogeneous right upper lobe collapse-consolidation. Despite mechanical obstruction, the flap-like action of condom (as noticeable on video-bronchoscopy) probably continued to clear secretions from right upper lobe, contributing to the delay in radiologic presentation of case”.

The medics were unsure whether the woman had genuinely accidentally swallowed the condom or whether she was just too embarrassed to report the incident and/or didn’t relate the incident to her subsequent symptoms. The authors also claimed that the original physicians who examined the woman were responsible for the condition being prolonged as they had failed to suspect that a foreign object (i.e., a condom) was the cause of the non-resolved pneumonia. They then noted that:

“Perhaps, views of physicians were guided by the age of patient (that was less suited for a suspicion of an inhaled foreign body), and also the fact, that a disease like tuberculosis was so highly prevalent in this part of world that a preference for the institution of [anti-tuberculosis treatment] was quite natural”.

Together, all of these reasons are likely to have resulted in a delayed diagnosis. The authors also noted that:

“Even following the condom retrieval [both husband and wife] were understandably hesitant in disclosing it owing to the nature of affair concerned (involving one’s privacy), the unusual nature of coitus performed (via an oral route) and the inhalation of a discrete object (like condom). The possibility of seminal aspiration also taking place simultaneously may not be ruled out…The case has certain atypical features, of which, the foremost relates to the type of inhaled object, i.e., a condom, which has not been reported in the literature to the best of our knowledge…[Another] atypical feature was adult-age of patient, that by any means, would be least expected to be associated with any foreign body inhalation”.

The authors speculated as to whether this incident was a one-off or whether such incidents were more widespread and were being under-reported because the Indian sub-continent has “a traditional conservative culture” where “people tend to have religious attitudes and sex is largely considered to be a subject limited to a person’s private life”. The authors concluded that:

“Perhaps, the young lady in our case was also quite apprehensive about fellatio, a fact that could have played a part in the condom inhalation. It is much desirable that sex taboos prevalent on the sub-continent are curbed and greater sexual awareness created in the people’s minds”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Agarwal, R.K., Banerjee, G., Shembish, N., & Jamal, B.A., Kareemullah, C. & Swaleh, A. (1988). Foreign bodies in the tracheobronchial tree: A review of 102 cases in Benghazi, Libya. Annals of Tropical Paediatrics, 8, 213-16.

Arya, C.L., Gupta, R. & Arora, V.K. (2004). Accidental condom inhalation. Indian Journal of Chest Diseases and Allied Sciences, 46, 55-58.

Ben-Dov, I. & Aelony, Y. (1989). Foreign body aspiration in the adult: An occult cause of chronic pulmonary symptoms. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 65, 299-301.

Causey, A.L., Talton, D.S., Miller, R.C., Warren, E.T. (1997). Aspirated safety pin requiring thoracotomy: Report of a case and review. Pediatric Emergency Care, 13, 397-400.

Lyons, D.J., McClod, D., Prichard, J., Dowd, D., & Clancy L. (1993). Very long retention of bronchial foreign bodies: Two new cases and a review of the literature. Irish Medical Journal, 86, 74-75.

Murthy, P.S., Ingle, V.S., George, E., Ramakrishna S. & Shah, F.A. (2001). Sharp foreign bodies in the tracheobronchial tree. American Journal of Otolaryngology, 22, 154-56.

Turn the eater on: Fat fetishes and feederism

Many years ago when I was just entering my teens (well, 1979 since you ask), I heard a song by Adam and the Ants called Fat Fun which at the time completely passed me by that it was all about fat fetishes. I should have guessed given that so many songs written by Adam Ant at the time were about fetishes and paraphilias (something that I have written about in an essays at length elsewhere (you can check them out in various places here and there).

Over the last few years, fat fetishism and fat admiration have come into more into the public domain through national press and television documentaries (I was interviewed by The Times on the topic back in June 2010)

Fat fetishists – mostly heterosexual and sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘chubby chasers’ – have an overwhelming (and often exclusive) sexual attraction towards very obese individuals of the opposite sex. (As a number of researchers point out, there is no widely held consensus in defining a fat admirer (FA), but the term is typically used in relation to individuals who find attractive someone considered clinically overweight). However, a recent paper by Dr Lee Monaghan (University of Limerick, Ireland) also noted and described aspects of the small gay fat admiration community through the use of qualitative data he collected online.

Fat fetishism also includes both ‘feederism’ and ‘gaining’ in which sexual arousal and gratification is stimulated through the person (referred to as the ‘feedee’) gaining body fat. Feederism is a practice carried out by many fat admirers within the context of their sexual relationships and is where the individuals concerned obtain sexual gratification from the encouraging and gaining of body fat through excessive food eating. Sexual gratification may also be facilitated and/or enhanced the eating behaviour itself, and/or from the feedee becoming fatter – known as ‘gaining’ – where either one or both individuals in the sexual relationship participate in activities that result in the gaining of excess body fat. This may not only involve eating more food but also engaging in sedentary activities that leave the feedee immobile. Some fat admirers may also derive pleasure from very specific parts of the body becoming fatter. A recent paper by Dr Lesley Terry and Dr Paul Vasey (both at the University of Lethbridge, Canada) in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, also claim that feedees are individuals who become sexually aroused by eating, being fed, and the idea or act of gaining weight.

Even if a fat admirer does not have direct sexual access to someone grossly overweight, there are other activities that fat admirers can encourage their sexual partners to engage in such as ‘padding’ (where individuals wear padded or layered clothing in a way that the person appears to have a distended abdomen) and inflation (where individuals inflate their abdomen with air or liquid so their abdomen is distended).

There has been a lot of psychological research showing that attractiveness of women is related to both low body mass index (BMI) and low waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). However, there has been a great deal of debate the universality of the findings and there is a lot of research that body shape attractiveness is determined by other factors including cross-cultural differences and gender-role stereotyping. There has also been research on physical attractiveness among ‘subcultures’ such as those people with eating disorders or in relation to sexual orientation. For instance, a study by Dr Viren Swami (University of Westminster, UK) and Dr Martin Tovee (University of Newcastle, UK) found that lesbians appear to idealize a heavier body weight in a potential partner than do heterosexual women or men.

One of these relatively unexplored ‘subcultures’ is the FA community. A study by Dr Viren Swami (by this time at the University of Liverpool, UK) and Professor Adrian Furnham (University College London, UK) and published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (2009), examined the body weight WHR preferences of 56 heterosexual ‘fat admirers’. They claimed that the “relative scarcity of studies on the preferences of FAs can probably be traced back to the misperception that it is inconceivable that an individual could be attracted to obese others or that such a preference is somehow ‘’deviant’”. Unsurprisingly, their study – which was the first published on notions of attractiveness within the FA community – reported that FAs preferred heavyweight individuals and rated those individuals with high WHRs as the most attractive. The results predictably suggest that heterosexual male FAs hold very different ideals relating to attractiveness when compared with heterosexual men from the general population. Although some of the participants were fat themselves, there was no difference between these individuals and those FAs who were not overweight. The authors conclude that:

“It seems plausible that male FA is paraphilic in the sense of it being a non-mainstream sexual practice without necessarily implying dysfunction or deviance. For instance, it may be that hunger or food was involved in the behavioral imprinting of a fat fetish in early childhood, a hypothesis favored by some psychoanalysts…A related theory also based on the principles of behavioral imprinting argues that when young men masturbate, the objects that are frequently nearby at the time of masturbation become objects of arousal in the future. The individual is thus associating the object with sexual orgasm, and this may include either eroticized images of overweight individuals, food, and so on” (p.206).

It is also worth noting that in the Journal of Sex Research, Dr Swami repeated the study comparing FAs with a control group of non-FAs and found the same results. Despite these studies, there is still little empirical research on fat admirers and feederism. The recent paper by Dr Terry and Dr Vasey reported the case study of a 30-year old female feedee (‘Lisa’).

At the time of the study, Lisa was 30 years of age, married and Caucasian. She was recruited by the researchers from a feederism website (FantasyFeeder.com). By age 13 years (at 5 feet 11 inches tall) she was mildly preoccupied with her weight. She weighed 120-130 lbs and had BMI of 16-18 (i.e., underweight). However. Like many girls, she viewed herself as fat and became self-conscious about her hips, thighs, and belly. She claimed to experience sexual thoughts about weight gain and fat from a very young age. Because of her sexual fantasies about fat women during adolescence, she experienced some confusion about her sexual orientation (but deemed herself heterosexual).

As an adult, Lisa said she was still sexually aroused in response to fat women but that it was limited to visual images found on the internet. Her ideal website would be where there were several pictures of the same woman getting fatter over time (and which she would masturbate over). Lisa also fantasized about being forced to gain weight by a dominant male who would became sexually aroused by making her gain weight. She also reported that all of her orgasms involve fantasizing about some form of feederism and that sometimes all she needs to reach orgasm is to fantasize about being a little bit heavier. Although she has actively engaged in weight gain for a four-month period in 2008, she has never been in a feedee/feeder relationship (as she doesn’t want the negative health consequences of becoming extremely overweight). She also reported her sexual arousal had significantly declined after the weight gain period.

In their discussion of Lisa’s case, Terry and Vasey made the point that as with many paraphilias, her pattern of sexual arousal was characterized by intense and repetitive sexual urges, fantasies, and behaviours involving unusual activities (i.e., the intense focus on eroticizing body fat). Terry and Vasey also questioned whether Lisa’s behaviour represented a form of morphophilia (i.e., peak erotic focus on a particular body characteristic – in this case body fat). They also speculated that some of the behaviour was sexually masochistic and that this supported their view that feederism had paraphilic elements (although Lisa reported that masochistic behaviours generally repulsed her). As with any case study, it may not be representative of the entire feederism community. Terry and Vasey also assert that more research needs to consider if, and how, feederism is taxonomically distinct from the various forms of morphophilia.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D (1999). Adam Ant: sex and perversion for teenyboppers. Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion, 19, 116-119.

Monaghan, L. (2005). Big handsome men, bears, and others: Virtual constructions of ‘fat male embodiment’. Body and Society, 11, 81-111.

Murray, S. (2004). Locating aesthetics: Sexing the fat woman. Social Semiotics, 14, 237-247.

Swami, V. & Furnham, A. (2009). Big and beautiful: Attractiveness and health ratings of the female body by male ‘‘fat admirers’’. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 201-208.

Swami, V., & Tovee, M.J. (2006). The influence of body weight on the physical attractiveness preferences of feminist and non-feminist heterosexual women and lesbians. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30, 252-257.

Swami, V. & Tovee, M.J. (2009). Big beautiful women: the body size preferences of male fat admirers. Journal of Sex Research, 46, 89-96.

Terry, L.L. & Vasey, P.L. (2011). Feederism in a woman. Archives of Sexial Behavior, 40, 639-645.

A glutton for reward (rather than punishment)? A brief psychological overview of excessive and addictive eating

In a previous article in this blog on shopping addictions, it was highlighted that the form of excessive or addictive behaviour someone develops may depend upon gender. As I noted in that article, men are more likely to be addicted to drugs, gambling and sex whereas women are more likely to suffer from ‘mall disorders’ such as eating and shopping. Food is – of course – a primary reward as it is necessary for our survival. However, it is this reward that gives highly palatable food (such as sugar) its addictive potential, leading to excessive eating as an addictive behaviour. Possible reasons behind such excessive eating in today’s society are many, including the increasing availability of food, a more inactive lifestyle, and financial considerations. Furthermore, as a means of mood enhancement, food is highly rewarding, easily available, low-cost and most of all it is legal!

Such justifications demonstrate some degree of explanatory power, contributing to research into the topic of excessive eating as an area of increasing interest. However, no such explanations address the critical question of why certain people seem to overeat, despite repeated efforts not to. The majority of obese cases tend to result from an over-consumption of energy, independent from a lack of physical activity. Therefore it may be people, rather than food, that need to be of focus here.

Prevalence rates for excessive and addictive eating are highly variable. Past year prevalence rates of eating disorders (particularly binge eating disorder, among older teens and adults typically varies between 1 to 2% but much higher figures have been reported in a variety of studies in a number of different countries (between 6% and 15% depending upon the sample). Based on these many studies that included samples of at least 500 participants, Professor Steve Sussman, Nadra Lisha (both at the University of Southern California) and myself estimated a past year prevalence rate of 2% for eating addiction among general population U.S. adults.

Reward sensitivity is a personality construct of Jeffrey Gray’s Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory, and is thought to control approach behaviour, by means of the dopamine reward centre. Individuals that are highly sensitive to reward are more prone to detect signals of reward in their environment (such as food) resulting in approaching these rewards more frequently, along with responding quicker and more strongly. Research demonstrates associations between reward sensitivity and increased food cravings, body weight, binge eating, and a preference for high fat food. Such findings offer a possible explanation for why only some individuals eat excessively when reward, particularly that produced by food, is a process available to all.

An excessive appetite for food has long been linked to emotional eating with research demonstrating that refined food addicts specifically report eating when they feel anxious. For instance, this is demonstrated in the eating habits of overweight Americans, revealing that women tend to binge eat when they feel lonely or depressed, while men overeat in positive social situations. Research dating back to the early 1990s found that women being treated for eating disorders described feeling less anxious as an episode of binge eating went on. Such research suggests that highly anxious people are more likely to turn to food for comfort, leading to excessive eating, yet in turn cause themselves more anxiety when this comfort is unavailable. For instance, this is demonstrated in the eating habits of overweight Americans, revealing that women tend to binge eat when they feel lonely or depressed, while men overeat in positive social situations.

Research has shown that obese people score higher on impulsiveness personality scales. Impulsivity is a tendency to ‘act on the spur of the moment’, often associated with a failure to learn from negative experience, wherein individuals know the appropriate way to behave but fail to act accordingly. Refined food addicts eat for a ‘pick-me-up’, although they are aware that they are not hungry, suggesting a correlation between reward sensitivity and impulsive reactions to such reward cues. Impulsive individuals have a tendency to react to stress and anxiety, with a craving for immediate satisfaction as a form of relief. Although eating may deliver this reward or relief, it may then condition impulsive individuals to react quickly, with this inapt response, to such feelings in the future; such as with feelings of hunger when feeling anxious. This could explain why repeated attempts to restrict food intake and lose weight, so often results in relapse in obese people.

Associations have also been observed between self-esteem and a variety of excessive eating behaviour populations, such as restrained eaters, bulimic patients, and binge eaters. One explanation for this suggests that individuals with low self-esteem have lower expectations for personal performance, resulting in less effort being made to resist challenges and temptations to their diets. This offers another explanation that individuals with low self-esteem depend more on external cues to control eating, such as how food looks, rather than internal cues, such as hunger, indicating reward sensitivity and resulting in dieters with low self-esteem overeating. Here, low self-esteem combined with reward sensitivity and its further correlations to impulsivity and anxiety, seem to demonstrate a destructive model of influence on behaviour, one trait further amplifying the next leading to continuous eating to excess.

In relation to low self-esteem, low social desirability has been seen to correlate significantly with restrained eating in obese people. High social desirability is most commonly associated with a desire for thinness. Therefore, although an association with eating behaviour exists, high social desirability is more likely to correlate with anorexic behaviours as opposed to excessive eating. Low social desirability, combined with low self-esteem as a cause or effect, could contribute to explaining excessive eating in some individuals, which in turn could be reasoned by contributions of all traits previously mentioned.

Finally, Professor Elizabeth Hirschman at Rutgers University has proposed a general model of addictive consumption that interrelates excessive and compulsive consumption behaviour. This model suggests similar characteristics people exhibit, along with common causes, patterns of development, and the similar functions such behaviours serve for individuals. Many of these have been previously associated with excessive eating in particular, further suggesting a general consumption personality principle.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Davenport, K., Houston, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Excessive eating and compulsive buying behaviours in women: An empirical pilot study examining reward sensitivity, anxiety, impulsivity, self-esteem and social desirability. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, DOI 10.1007/s11469-011-9332-7.

Davis, C., Levitan, R. D., Smith, M., Tweed, S. & Curtis, C. (2006) Associations among overeating, overweight, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A structural equation modelling approach. Eating Behaviors, 7, 266–274.

Hirschman, E.C. (1991) Recovering from drug addiction: A phenomenological account. In Sherry, J.F and Sternthal, B (Eds.), Advances in Consumer Research. Association for Consumer Research, 18, 541-549.

Hodgson R.J., Budd R. & Griffiths M. (2001). Compulsive behaviours (Chapter 15). In H. Helmchen, F.A. Henn, H. Lauter & N. Sartorious (Eds) Contemporary Psychiatry. Vol. 3 (Specific Psychiatric Disorders). pp.240-250. London: Springer.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Trinko, R., Sears, R. M., Guarnieri, D. J. & DiLeone, R. J. (2007) Neural mechanisms underlying obesity and drug addiction. Physiology & Behavior, 91, 499–505.