Scientists believe some people could be clinically addicted to food
Around one in 200 people could be clinically addicted to food, experts believe.
Scientists are investigating the possibility that in some cases over-eating is caused by behavioural addiction.
Changes in the way psychiatrists view addiction could in future see food abuse become a diagnosable condition.
A small proportion of people with binge-eating disorders - maybe 0.5% of the general population - fit most of the criteria for addiction, it is believed. Many experts think they suffer from a similar problem as individuals who compulsively gamble or steal.
Currently such patterns of behaviour are categorised as "impulse control disorders" rather than addictions. But this is set to change with publication of the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM), which lays out diagnosis rules for psychiatrists.
Experts are now discussing whether compulsive eating can be classified as a behavioural addiction. A £5 million EU research project called NeuroFAST has been set up to examine the evidence, bringing together scientists from seven European countries.
Professor Julian Mercer, from the University of Aberdeen, said: "If we can reach a consensus on how over-eating should be classified, this could lead to major changes in clinical treatment and public policy surrounding obesity. It would help firstly to clarify if food addiction is a route to binge-eating or obesity.
"Recognition of different routes to overweight and obesity could lead to more targeted treatments for defined groups, giving individuals clinical help which is specific and pertinent to their situation. In future, over-eating could be recognised as the consequence of food addiction in a small group of individuals, and the treatment they are offered may have convergence with that which is offered to drug/alcohol abusers."
Dr Ozgur Albayrak, another NeuroFAST scientist from the University of Essen in Germany, said: "Food addiction possibly does not refer to a majority of over eaters but only a small sub group with disordered eating behaviours. There may be a prevalence of half a per cent."
The issue of food addiction was discussed at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen. It staged a workshop where people were asked about their views on the subject. Prof Mercer said about half the audience believed they were food addicts, or claimed to know someone who was one.