Is Junk Food Addiction for Real?

fat rat

A recent study published by Scripps Research Institute indicates that foods laced with fat, sugar, and salt are capable of causing addiction similar to the addiction to nicotine and cocaine. At DiversityInc, Sam Ali quotes one of the researchers, Paul Kenny, who says he and his fellow scientists

[…] let lab rats gorge round-the-clock on cake frosting and sweet treats, as well as bacon and sausage, and discovered that it triggered addiction-like responses in their brains. To maintain their food-induced highs, the rats consumed more and more fatty treats — and got obese in the process.

Other scientists are weighing in on the debate. For instance, David H. Epstein & Yavin Shaham of the National Institute on Drug abuse say in Nature Neuroscience that the changes in behavior and physiology showing up in rats look just like addiction, except the abused drug in this case is food with high fat and sugar content. They also ask whether unhealthy, compulsive eating can rightfully be called addiction, and warn that parallels between this and other known forms of addiction should be drawn with care.

So it’s a very tough question, one which Dr. Pretlow addressed to the editors of Pediatrics magazine. In his letter, he points out that, like recreational drugs, food is used by young people to cope with stress, to self-medicate when experiencing depression and anxiety, and to provide sensory entertainment when the person is bored. Highly pleasurable food can qualify as a drug under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration criteria: namely, users crave it, ignoring the risks to their health involved in using it, and it has a psychoactive effect. Junk food, made up of some combination of fat, sugar, salt, chemicals, and empty calories, could be said to have drug-like properties.

In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow goes into this in more detail, enumerating six different criteria for addiction, as defined by the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Addictiveness is identified when at least three out of the six are present:

* Tolerance
* Withdrawal
* Large amounts over a long period
* Unsuccessful efforts to cut down
* Time spent in obtaining the substance replaces social, occupational, or recreational activities
* Continued use despite adverse consequences

The point being, the various kids who write on the Weigh2Rock website have admitted being subject to all of those six criteria, in various combinations. In other words, a lot of kids admit they are junk food addicts. In fact, the majority of them seem to be more in touch with reality than most grownups. As Dr. Pretlow says,

They regard highly pleasurable food like a drug, which they must get off of.

When polled with the question, “Do you feel that your eating is out of control?” 66 percent of the respondents said “Yes.” That’s pretty unequivocal. Answers don’t come much clearer than that. Maybe the solution is to skip right over the argument about whether junk food is addictive and kids are addicts. Maybe we could just accept the fact that, whether or not it’s technically an addiction, the seemingly unquenchable desire for junk food can be successfully treated using the addiction model. Which, apparently, it can.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Is Junk Food as Addictive as Cocaine?” DiversityInc, 04/29/10
Source: “Cheesecake-eating rats and the question of food addiction,” Nature Neuroscience, 2010
Source: “Overweight and Obesity in Childhood,” Pediatrics, 08/01/08
Source: “Overweight: What Kids Say,”
Image by youngthousands, used under its Creative Commons license.

4 Responses

  1. well, maybe children are bored , they sit at home doing nothing, and also since there are very high divorce rates going on, guilt gets in the way,
    and maybe parents are too busy with the kids so the kids just eat and eat to replace attention?

    1. Zinny Love, you are psychic. I made some notes the other day for a future post, about how to help kids eat reasonably. It will have suggestions, including thoughts about how to substitute some quality-time attention for junk food.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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