Why Americans Don't Want to Hear About Food Addiction

Mean Girlfriend

In some circles, putting forward the idea that food can be an addictive substance will win a person the reputation of a serious crackpot. This is often the fate of innovators who have more than average awareness, and who see a bit more deeply into society’s problems. We have discussed the food dependence-addiction paradigm here before, and today we look at reasons why it is considered a far-out and unacceptable idea.

Some of these reasons are touched by Sam Ali in “Is Junk Food as Addictive as Cocaine?” Ali talks about the theory held by Dr. David Kessler, that snack food manufacturers try very hard — on purpose — to create products whose immediate gratification effects are as self-reinforcing, and consequently as addictive as any other drug.

Well, that’s not surprising. The whole point of the economic system is to sell people things, in other words, to supply a demand. The object is to supply the consumers with a product they like so much that they will come back and buy more. Dr. Kessler quotes a report prepared by Kenneth E. Warner and Yale University psychology professor Kelly Brownell:

Many scientific issues have yet to be addressed, and the press, public and elected leaders have not yet challenged the industry on this matter. But for such a sensitive issue, and one with potentially important legal implications, one can imagine how threatening even the implication of addiction would be to the industry, as it was with tobacco.

Who can blame corporations for creating a demand for their products? Nobody needs blue nail polish, yet it’s perfectly legitimate for a company to make the bluest nail polish, and to convince women, via advertising, that their lives will be better if they applied this stuff to their fingertips.

Where are the legal grounds to punish a cupcake maker for producing the most scrumptious possible cupcake, or for telling us that our lives will be better if we eat plenty of cupcakes? How can a law be framed that says, “Thou shalt not make such yummy cupcakes”? The cupcake maker could say, with some justification, “You’re telling me to make a lousy product! That’s cheating the consumers!”

Most of us don’t want to acknowledge that the mega-corporations are once again putting something over on us, and that we are dupes. But we are. The intrinsic addictive qualities of fat, sugar, salt, and flavorings, plus the emotional neediness that drives kids to comfort eating, and the stresses that drive them to eating as a displacement activity, all come together to create a vast market for the feel-good edibles, which the food industry is all too happy to accommodate. Our kids are a captive audience to the advertising, and they willingly become hooked, sometimes for life.

Critics want to know: If food is so addictive, how come nobody gets addicted to broccoli? Well, that’s the point. We’re talking about a subgenre of food, the kind purposely made highly pleasurable by the inclusion of dangerous amounts of sugar, fat, and salt. The kind that’s easy to get hooked on.

Remember the famous quotation attributed to Martin Niemöller, about the apathy of many Germans when the Nazis took over? There are several versions of it, but in every case the underlying principle is the same, and it goes something like this:

First, they came for the soda pop, and I didn’t speak up, because I don’t drink soda pop.

Then they came for the doughnuts, and I didn’t speak up, because I don’t like doughnuts.

Then they came for the marshmallows, and I didn’t speak up, because I don’t eat marshmallows.

Then they came for my chocolate-covered bacon, but by that time, the soda pop, doughnut, and marshmallow eaters were so mad at me for not supporting them, they just stood aside and let my chocolate-covered bacon be taken away.

In other words, we all have our own favorite kind of junk food that we indulge in. If a lot of people start accepting the food dependence-addiction paradigm, these ideas of control, prohibition and extra taxation could gain too much approval. This could threaten our access to supplies of our own favorite “comfort drug.”

For the food dependence or addiction paradigm to gain wide acceptance, its proponents will need to address these concerns in a way that alleviates fear and inspires a desire to work within the addiction-medicine framework. For this new paradigm to bring about effective change in the struggle against childhood obesity, first our collective consciousness needs to abandon its basic stance of scornful disbelief.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Is Junk Food as Addictive as Cocaine?,” DiversityInc, 04/29/10
Image by Orin Zebest, used under its Creative Commons license.

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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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