The reader will enjoy Dr. Pretlow’s account of his experiences at the 2009 ECOG scientific meeting, where he conducted a plenary session and introduced the idea that the childhood obesity epidemic is caused by emotionally driven comfort eating, which often results in addiction. This idea was based, he explained, “on the anonymous posts of thousands of overweight and obese kids on my open-access website over the past 10 years.” He was referring, of course, to the children and teens who had communicated with his team via the Weigh2Rock website.
At the time, almost the entire medical profession was united in believing that the idea of food addiction, especially when applied to children, was provocative, sensationalistic, and inflammatory. (Spoiler alert: in the intervening years, largely because of Dr. Pretlow’s work, the concept has become much more widely accepted.)
2010: Uniting Against Childhood Obesity
In April of 2010, at the Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, Dr. Pretlow’s 55 minute plenary session presentation was titled “What’s Really Causing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic – What Kids Say.” At that gathering, he met the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. Dr. Pretlow suggested that the Department might benefit from asking kids exactly which foods caused them the most difficulty, in terms of being unable to either moderate their consumption or to stay away from those foods. If the government were to try regulating foods responsible for the obesity epidemic, those would logically be the ones to choose first. But the official was not interested.
Dr. Pretlow, of course, already knew a great deal about problem foods, having polled the Weigh2Rock participants. Potato chips are one of the most addictive foods for kids, and the work of other researchers has confirmed that the same is true of grownups. However, it is unlikely that the government will attempt to regulate potato chips like tobacco any time soon.
2010: Royal College of Physicians National Obesity Forum
October of 2010 took Dr. Pretlow to London for the Royal College of Physicians National Obesity Forum and a 22-minute plenary session presentation called “Why Are Children Overweight?” In that talk he explored the question of why kids overeat even though they hate to be fat, and hypothesized that binge eating might be an amalgam of comfort eating and displacement activity. He pointed out that knowledge about healthful eating, though extensively available, is not of much use to the young. What they really need is help in acquiring skills to stop the cravings that lead them to gorge on those problem foods. Slide 50 of the presentation is a mind-blowing compilation of replies from the Weigh2Rock kids and teens, defining the problem foods hardest for them to resist.
Dr. Pretlow also affirmed that, just like a hard drug addict, a compulsive over-eater develops tolerance to preferred substances. Again, this idea was considered outlandish by many of the forum’s attendees. But the similarity is undeniable. One universal characteristic of addiction is that the person quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns, where more and more of the substance delivers less and less of a reward. Another section of the talk (Slide 42) went over the idea of the “childhood obesity perfect storm.”
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