Why Parents Don’t Want to Hear About Food Addiction, Part 6

Baby bites

We have been thinking about not thinking, specifically about why some parents avoid thinking about childhood obesity in general, and about food addiction in particular. Part of the problem is that even if the latest theories about obesity are correct, it’s too late to do anything differently. For instance, the bottle-feeding versus breastfeeding debate. There is no going back on that one. And once a child starts school, if obesity shows up, along with a slightly lower IQ, it’s too late to go decide that a junk food diet is no good for a toddler. The damage is already done. It’s too late to change, but not too late for regrets or guilt, so sometimes we convince ourselves that it’s better to not think about these things at all.

Even if, as we believe, addiction to hedonic or highly pleasurable foods is the number-one reason for the childhood obesity epidemic, other things may still contribute to the Childhood Obesity Perfect Storm. Scientists are revealing even more possible reasons for childhood obesity. For instance, Liz Szabo recently reported for USA Today on a study that encompasses both good news and bad news. She writes,

Formula-fed babies who begin solid foods too early — before they’re 4 months old — are six times as likely to become obese by age 3, compared with babies who start on solids later…

It’s bad news, of course, for the millions of kids who got off to a disadvantaged start by receiving solid food too early; but good news for millions more who might be prevented from becoming obese by the simple method of delaying solid foods until the four-month threshold, or even until six months have passed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics would like to see babies breastfed for the first half-year. We learn that:

A 2005 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that switching formula-fed babies to breast milk could reduce the child obesity rate by 15% to 20%.

Of course, it’s not so simple to “switch” a baby from formula to breast milk, because once a mother stops breastfeeding, the supply dries up and the program can’t be reversed. The ideal would be for every new mother to nourish the infant herself, right from the beginning, and for as long as possible, even up to that six-month mark.

One trouble with bottles is that parents have a tendency to encourage a baby to finish the entire bottle, rather than stopping at the point of natural satiety. A theory has been put forth that this interferes with the tiny organism’s inborn ability to know when enough is enough. Something about the bottle-feeding process seems to mess up the “off” switch. And this, as time goes on, is one of the contributing factors to addiction. The “off” switch is jammed or broken, so the brain has no way to tell the body “you have been fed.” The body forgets what “enough” feels like, and one of the hallmarks of addiction is that there is never “enough.”

In order to feel satisfied, the addict needs a progressively increasing amount of the substance of abuse. When the substance of abuse is hyperpalatable food, the result will almost inevitably be obesity. When food is fuel, the body has the innate wisdom to know when sufficiency has been reached. When food is a “fix” for a junkie, the whole notion of sufficiency goes right out the window.

And there is still more to the story. It seems that one certain solid food seems is even more blameworthy than others, at least according to Dr. Alan Greene. This Stanford University pediatrician has started the “White Out” campaign to reverse the 50-year tradition of initiating babies into solid food with white rice. This leads Greene to believe that white rice cereal is the basic building block of childhood obesity. From a piece written by Juju Chang and Lara Sahali, we learn that polished rice has been the standard because it is gluten-free and hypoallergenic. Yet, Greene says it is “basically like feeding kids a spoonful of sugar.” The reporters quote him further:

I have been studying nutrition very carefully for more than a decade now and one of the things that I have become convinced of is that white rice cereal can predispose to childhood obesity. In fact I think it is the tap root of the child obesity epidemic.

It almost seems like there is an intentional campaign to habituate babies to sugar at the earliest possible date. If starch digests into sugar, and white rice is 94% starch, we got a problem. Greene says we might as well fill the feeding bottles with soda pop. (Which some parents actually do anyway.) Can Greene’s view of white rice cereal as the prototypical villain be seen through the psychological food dependence-addiction lens? Dr. Pretlow says,

Digestion into sugar doesn’t seem to be a factor, as it is “fast receptor” stimulation (i.e. taste, texture) that activates the brain’s reward center where addiction originates, rather than slow receptor stimulation like rising blood sugar.

Since it doesn’t taste that sweet going in, rice cereal would seem not to fit the profile of a highly pleasurable, hyper-palatable, hedonic food. So it looks like rice cereal brings along the unhealthful effects of sugar, without even providing that initial rush of sweetness for the taste buds. Of course, the marketplace offers plenty of other baby goop that does taste sweet, like PediaSure, which Dr. Pretlow has written about for Fooducate.

The basic urge behind substance abuse is the hope to alleviate pain, or, better yet, eradicate it entirely. A great deal of addiction results from a person’s efforts to self-medicate the pain away. Various predisposing influences may lead to a person being at risk for addiction. Environmental factors can exacerbate the distress, and activate an addiction-prone person into full-blown substance dependency.

In any case, one thing is for certain. As a drug of choice, what could be more suitable than the very first pain-relieving pleasure ever experienced in life? The ingestion of something delicious is probably the earliest sense memory we have. When life gets on top of a person to such an extent that substance addiction is seen an answer, food is the ideal candidate. Food is the dream drug of reasonably prudent individuals. It takes a certain type of outlaw personality to embark on a lifetime of heroin addiction, but with food, there is just about zero chance of going to jail.

As always, for many of us, it’s too late to make use of this knowledge. But for anybody who is not finished having children yet, this might be useful information. A prospective parent might want to take a closer look at the whole question of solid food, and especially of which solid food to feed the baby. Can’t hurt, might help.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Child obesity linked to formula, early start on solids,” USA Today, 02/07/11
Source: “Rice Cereal Controversy: Does It Make Kids Fat?,” ABCNews, 01/31/11
Image by Flutterbright (Angel), used under its Creative Commons license.

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