The Food Addiction Paradigm and Resistance

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“My ‘AHA’ Moment” is a short and to-the-point message written by an overweight blogger named Rebecca, who says,

I finally realized that even if others can eat junk foods, foods high in the (bad) fats and carbs and drink coffee and colas, I just cannot do it…

This sounds familiar, because it is the same epiphany reached by alcoholics, if they are lucky: “Others might have only one drink, I just cannot do it.” Same goes for people addicted to hard drugs. Like the potato chip ad says, “Bet you can’t eat one.” A person whose problem food is potato chips certainly can’t stop with one chip, or one handful of chips. Even one jumbo-sized bag may not be enough.

There are many clear parallels between the classic substance addiction and the way that some people relate to food. In fact, the similarity is so marked that many health professionals now go ahead and call it food addiction.

Childhood Obesity News reader Heather Whistler invited us to check out her writings about food addiction, and we found a piece called “Twenty Questions About Food Addiction.” Whistler didn’t formulate the Twenty Questions, but was given them at a 12-step meeting. She got an almost perfect score, because 19 out of the 20 had to be answered “Yes.” Whistler says,

These people spoke about food addiction, and I felt as though — after years of trying to play tennis with a ping pong ball — someone had finally pointed out to me my mistake: I was an addict. What was wrong with me finally had a name. It was an incredible relief.

Here is something else to worry about: iatrogenic food addiction, caused by the therapy (in this case a pharmaceutical) being administered for another condition. Some of the people who read Childhood Obesity News don’t comment on the site, but they do send email, and here are two disturbing anecdotal reports:

Lately we have been dealing with the side effects of medications that create food obsession… we had to eliminate a seizure drug that caused food fixation… scary indeed … especially when I was standing in front of the fridge…

I’ve heard that about various seizure meds, [someone I knew] had similar experiences with her daughter. They had to switch meds because the poor child felt like she was starving all the time. Brain chemistry is tricky business. You tweak one aspect and something else goes out of whack.

Consider the time-honored parental custom of rewarding children for good behavior with candy, cookies, etc. Using treats as a teaching method has a built-in hazard. You can teach a puppy to roll over by doling out tidbits, thus reinforcing successive approximations. As B. F. Skinner would say, if you reward the puppy each time, it gets closer to doing it right. But the downside is, that same puppy will break into the cupboard, rip open the bag of treats, and proceed from there.

The lesson is, when a creature likes something enough to change its behavior for the better, the potential also exists of a behavior change for the worse. The same goes for people. It’s true for a lot of people, that if something is worth esteeming and working for as a reward, it’s also worth taking by other, coercive means.

This is why Michael Prager is amazing. A self-described food addict, he reveals how he stole money to buy junk food when he was a kid. That’s the kind of behavior we more often associate with drug addicts.

Fat Boy Thin Man is a very convincing book, on the topic of food addiction. An unhealthy relationship with food can look, sound, feel, smell, and perform just like an addiction to drugs. It is for such reasons that Dr. Pretlow says,

Perhaps medical science needs to get beyond its denial that food addiction is causing the obesity epidemic and focus on how we are going to deal with this.

Dr. Pretlow terms this denial the “Medical Science and Food Addiction Barrier,” and surmounting this barrier has been his life’s work for many years. The resistance is all around. Here is a paragraph from his book, Overweight: What Kids Say:

Comfort eating and the notion that overweight kids may be addicted to the pleasure of food is an unpopular paradigm. Many healthcare professionals and parents are offended by the mere suggestion of this. Healthcare professionals have walked away from me in mid-sentence when I attempted to discuss this with them. Friends have become upset when I explained the notion to them. One gal indignantly grabbed a cookie and ate it in my face! No one wants to hear the message.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “My ‘AHA’ Moment,”, 05/20/10
Source: “Twenty Questions About Food Addiction,”, 06/20/10
Source: “Overweight: What Kids Say,”
Image by Oldmaison, used under its Creative Commons license.

3 Responses

  1. Denial is a huge aspect of any type of addiction. It takes many alcoholics, drug addicts, and food addicts years of beating their heads against the wall before they finally accept that they have the disease.

    So, yes, while it may be offputting to hear that food addiction might be the issue with you or your child, the more we get the word out that such a thing even exists, the more likely it is that the person who has “hit bottom” with his or her addiction will be able to find an effective solution.

    The Twelve Steps have been a wonderful solution for me. When I came into my program 11 years ago, I stopped binging and purging and lost 55 pounds. I’ve kept that weight off ever since.

    Thanks for spreading the message that food addiction is real and that it is treatable!

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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.

Food & Health Resources