No Cold Turkey on the Food Addict's Plate


Through anecdotal evidence found in their own lives and the lives of loved ones, many Americans have acknowledged that junk food is addictive. The researchers, while studying the reactions of brain and body to certain kinds of foods, are finding tangible, measurable indications that junk food addiction is not imaginary. Many counselors and therapists also find that, while they may not want to fully endorse the food-addiction model, the problem of childhood obesity can be successfully treated by proceeding as if junk food dependency were a classic addiction.

Which is fine as far as it goes, but, as it usually happens in most of life’s worthy endeavors, there is a fly in the ointment and a spanner in the works. The difficulty peculiar to food addiction is elegantly phrased by Kathryn Flynn on

When an alcoholic decides to sober up, it is entirely possible to continue through life without another drink. A smoker never has to smoke again. A heroin addict never has to shoot up again. A gambler never needs to make another wager. A food addict, on the other hand, can never completely give up food, making it one of the most addicting, trying addictions.

This is a huge problem. A recovering alcoholic knows that he or she must not take a drink again. Never, as in not ever. Not even one. A recovering heroin addict who starts chipping is no longer in recovery, but an inch away from relapsing into full-tilt junkiedom. Yet it is possible, as thousands of newly clean and sober citizens find every year, to let the addiction go.

Whatever it takes — an environmental change, a mentor, a buddy, a steel-clad intention, a spiritual enlightenment, a heartfelt vow — addicts find the way back to sanity, and it involves total abstention. Nobody can totally abstain from food though, which is why Flynn calls it “the most addicting addiction.” It can’t be cold-turkied.

The Week, in an uncredited article titled “Junk food: More addictive than cocaine?” breaks down the results of the recent Scripps Research Institute study into handy Q&A format. One parallel between junk food addiction and, for instance, cocaine addiction, is that tolerance develops, so increasing amounts of the substance are needed to attain the desired effect.

In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow presents the confessions of very many young people who have, sometimes anonymously, told their stories on the Weigh2Rock website. Here are the words of two different girls, both 15, words that will seem strangely familiar to any hooked drinker or drugger:

I eat just one chip or have the smallest amount of candy or ice cream, I want more. I end up eating like [three] candy bars instead of part of one, or ice cream, a few cookies and some candy, or the whole bag of chips. My problem is that if I have that one slice of cake, next thing I know I’m having another one, and another one and yet another one.

Children and teens who want to get off the obesity track must carry the same workload as any other recovering addict: all the physical discomfort of withdrawal, and all the necessary psychological re-tooling. Plus, unlike other addicts, they are faced with an environment that includes the constant, unrelenting availability of their nemesis. Other substances can be avoided, but junk food can’t be. Even the sea of alcohol in which our society swims does not match the threat posed to a recovering addict by the ubiquitous presence of food. Especially junk food.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Food fight: The most addicting addiction,”, 05/04/10
Source: “Junk food: More addictive than cocaine?” The Week, 03/31/10
Source: “Overweight: What Kids Say,”
Image by nesster, used under its Creative Commons license.

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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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