Pamela Peeke on Food Addiction


Pamela Peeke, M.D., is one of America’s few physicians who have completed training in nutrition science. She sees life as a journey, and her practice is a way of supporting people in the transformations they experience and cause along that journey. Peeke also tells us that food addiction is real, and explains a rat study undertaken by the Scripps Research Institute and sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Here’s how it went:

— Rat Posse A got a normal diet and some junk food.
— Rat Posse B got a normal diet and all the junk food as they could eat.

The first group, whose access to junk food was limited, grew chunky but not obese. The rats with unlimited access to the goodies got really fat. And even when electric shocks were added to the menu, they didn’t let it stop them. It was worth being tortured to get to the junk-food fix.

But wait — there’s more.

When that experiment was over, all the rats were returned to their normal, healthy diets, with zero junk food. The Group B fat rats turned up their nose at this nutritious but boring fare, and refused to eat anything at all for two weeks. They were holding out for the good stuff. It took a while for them to get the message, but eventually they caved, and became resigned to the fate of eating plain old rat food. Peeke says,

But, I’ll guarantee you if the junk was placed in the cage 2 months from now, the rats will reawaken those taste memories in a heartbeat.

It’s all about dopamine in the brain, and the lesson learned is, just as an alcoholic can’t have one drink, there are people who can’t allow themselves to “stray a bit” if they want to maintain a healthy weight. Like the old saying goes, one drink is too many, and a thousand not enough. There are alcohol addicts, and there are food addicts, and that’s just the way it is. Here is the point of this study, as Peeke describes it:

Since drug addiction and obesity are major national problems, researchers set out to see if brain changes that take place in drug addiction were present in the obese.

The answer is yes, and it’s one of those vicious cycles. This study demonstrates a pattern of circularity and futility:

1. Indulgence in sugary and fatty foods.
2. Something about those foods knocks the brain’s reward system off kilter.
3. The reward threshold gets higher, and the resistance threshold gets lower.
4. More indulgence in sugary and fatty foods.

There are many possible vicious cycles waiting for the unwary and the careless. Please see Chapter 13 of Overweight: What Kids Say, for a mystical misery tour of some of the potential traps.

Dr. Pretlow on “Hyperpalatable Foods and Tolerance”:

Tolerance is a characteristic of addictive behaviors, where an individual must use more and more of a substance or behavior, or worse substances, to obtain the same pleasurable effect. If the childhood obesity epidemic is due in part to an addiction to highly pleasurable foods, the tolerance might be a factor that is worsening the epidemic and contributing to development of severe or ‘morbid’ obesity in some kids.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Junk Food Junkie: Food Addiction is Real,” Web MD, 04/13/10
Image from  Shutterstock, used under its Creative Commons license.

0 Responses

  1. nowdays i have noticed that in elementary schools the foods they serve are very small!
    i am wondering if this pertains to preventing obesity? but then i asked around and found out that they give food in very small portions to help them focus because if they ate too much, theyll be too sleepy in class..
    wondering if that is true? but for some children i mean, this would not be good because sometimes at home they have absolutely nothing to eat at home so they come to school and eat.
    so theres a conflict with this.? right?

  2. This Article is so right. I see it in kids that start so young not knowing about the purpose of food. Majority use it for taste not fuel. That’s why I’m taking the time to work with kids that are obesity. In our nonprofit program we target on childhood obesity. And we have classes on nutrition and having playing time with kids. We need more programs like it for all the communities.

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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.

Food & Health Resources