Reflections on Food Addiction


Huffington Post blogger Jan Shepherd, who had lost 200 pounds and kept it off for nearly 10 years, talks about handling addictive behaviors:

As addictive behaviors go, ones dealing with food and eating are among the most complicated and complex. I’m not suggesting that alcoholism is by any means easy, but it is possible to stop drinking alcohol entirely and live a balanced life. The same goes for most drugs. Even sex. But when it comes to food and eating, abstinence is not a viable alternative.

Shepherd has many ideas about what to do when a person’s eating behavior threatens to get out of control. When there is an impulse to overeat, she suggests 10 things to ask yourself, in order to trace down what sparked the impulse, and figure out what should be done about it. For instance, are you about to eat a bunch of junk because of an “I’ll show you!” impulse, just so you can demonstrate who is in charge? Well, cut it out! There are better ways to assert one’s autonomy. An entire seminar could be held on that topic alone. All of Shepherd’s questions are easy to understand by teens and even kids.

In his lively presentation, “What’s Really Causing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic? What Kids Say,” Dr. Pretlow talks about childhood obesity initiatives and programs. (See slide #100 in particular, which is actually an audio clip.) He proposes a new paradigm, namely, that comfort eating is an addictive behavior similar to other addictions.

This means, of course, that any publicly funded projects that are either proposed or already in place, should be looked at through the “psychological food dependence-addiction lens.” Do they help the apparent addictive dependence kids are experiencing? If we don’t recognize that highly pleasurable foods perform as if they were drugs of abuse, we can’t make any progress.

It would be very difficult to deny this: One cause of obesity in children and teens is an unappeasable appetite for highly pleasurable foods. So when a large number of those kids themselves come forward and identify the stuff as addictive, we really ought to listen. There is no logical reason why this paradigm should be as unpopular as it seems to be, in some quarters. Michael Ventura once wrote,

Ye shall know the truth, and it shall upset ye.

But we can get over the upset. We’re the grownups. We want our kids to tell us the truth. We can handle it, when they tell us they don’t need another class on why apples are better than cupcakes. Not listening can cause even more problems than we already have. For instance, when a child participates in a program that doesn’t do any good, she or he comes away discouraged and even more hopeless than before, and keeps on comfort-eating. He or she may be disinclined to try any more approaches.

I mean, sometimes it’s hard enough for a young person to admit the need for any kind of help. Imagine finally giving in, seeking help, and finding it useless. Many approaches have been demonstrated to be ineffective. This is one of the possible vicious cycles that kids get trapped in. Something doesn’t work, so they feel even worse, and comfort-eat even more. So, why go out of our way to promote any program that will only become yet another element of a vicious cycle?

Let’s face it, kids use highly pleasurable food like a drug to cope with life. The pleasure temporarily relieves bad feelings; the muscular activity involved in crunching and chewing is a displacement activity that relieves stress. Most kids are even unaware they’re doing this (which is called “denial,” through the dependence-addiction lens), and even if they are aware, they can’t stop. They describe their eating as out of control.

What’s that old saying? If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, might as well go ahead and call it a duck. If this problem looks, acts, and feels like an addiction, might as well go ahead and start thinking about how to solve the problem with addiction medicine.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Emotional Fillers: Confronting My Binge Eating Disorder,” Huffington Post, 07/16/10
Source: “What’s Really Causing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic? What Kids Say,” Weigh2Rock
Image by chmeredith, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

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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