Many Doctors Believe Food Can Be Addictive

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Can food be addictive in the same way as, for instance, heroin? Many doctors believe that it can. While some people are not very addiction-prone, others are, but are too busy being junkies involving some other substance, and food doesn’t do a thing for them.

Not every person who eats is a food addict. But many people do indeed self-identify as food addicts. They join groups whose success rate is directly related to how much is borrowed from the original Alcoholics Anonymous modality. Two such programs are Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous.

Of people who self-identify as food addicts, some are obese and some are not. What they have in common is dependency on foods, or pseudo-foods, that are variously described as highly pleasurable, hedonic, hyperpalatable, etc. The joy of eating can temporarily alleviate emotional wounds. Food addicts self-medicate in the same way that heroin addicts use their drug of abuse — first, to feel better; but later, simply to not feel worse.

This is not guesswork, it’s people reporting what it true for them, the fact that they have a serious and real problem, exactly like other addicts. Eating disorders can destroy families, ruin lives, and inspire suicide, just as surely as alcoholism or hard-drug addiction.

Progressively more of the substance is needed to get the desired effect. The person might try to use less or quit, but can’t. Cutting down or quitting will cause withdrawal symptoms. Large amounts of the substance are used, over a long period of time. Jobs, relationships, and other interests become irrelevant. And, if trouble comes along, in the form of injury, divorce, arrest, or other dire consequence, the person keeps on using the stuff anyway. DSM-IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition) names those six characteristics of addiction. Three out of six will get you a diagnosis.

People are different, and so are the edibles. Not every food or even every pseudo-food is a potentially addictive substance. But some are. In 1975, William Dufty published Sugar Blues, and shocked readers with the claim that sugar can be as addictive as hard drugs or alcohol. He wasn’t a doctor, but he was a friend of John and Yoko, and he has married film star and macrobiotics maven Gloria Swanson, who inspired him to tell the world about sugar.

Dr. Theron Randolph, who co-founded the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, attributed responsibility for addiction to our neurotransmitters. When they don’t function correctly, we get cravings. In reaction to physical or psychological pain, we reach for liquor or hard drugs, caffeine, carbohydrates, or sugar. Dr. Randolph made a close study of cravings and how people satisfy them, and concluded that addiction is addiction, regardless of the substance.

Dr. Douglas Hunt had his own experience to work with. Despite being a physician with psychiatric training, he was helpless against chocolate and soda pop. He recognized that his dependency was as serious as addiction to cocaine or heroin, and said as much in his 1987 book, No More Cravings.

Many of his patients were also addicted to specific foods — cream cheese, peanut butter, apple fritters, cheese sandwiches. Both he and the patients got results with nutritional supplementation. He also linked allergy (for example, to yeast) with cravings (for instance, addiction to bread, which contains yeast.) Along with allergies and vitamin or mineral deficiencies, he blamed stress, the “ultimate unbalancer.”

Dr. Drew Pinsky is an addiction specialist who administers a chemical-dependency unit and has an extensive history of radio and television presence. He sees addiction as a specific biological disorder with a genetic basis, which affects the brain’s reward systems. First there is a precursor, a pharmacological addiction that causes changes in the brain. A switch gets stuck, and the need for substances goes out of control.

Obese people have negative experiences all day long, health problems and relationship problems, and difficulties at school or work. Yet all that misery doesn’t stop them from abusing their substance of choice. That alone is proof of addiction.

Dr. Neal Barnard learned that chocolate, sugar, cheese, and meat can set off biochemical effects similar to those elicited by alcohol, tobacco, morphine, and heroin. The fact that the pharmaceutical drug Naloxone is effective to treat food cravings shows that the same addictive process is at work. He also offers a seven-step program.

Dr. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, first took on the tobacco industry, then turned his attention to junk food. He sees the obesity epidemic as the result of “conditioned hypereating,” which is similar to patterns of alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse. He also sees the food industry as going out of its way to intentionally create hyperpalatable and therefore potentially addictive products.

Dr. Pamela Peeke pursued training in nutrition science and believes that it’s never too late to transform a life. Confirming that food addiction is real, she has written about the Scripps Research Institute rat studies, where rats had all they could eat of either regular food or junk food. The junk-food rats got very fat and would endure electrical shocks to get their fix, while the other rats only grew chubby but not obsessed. It’s all about dopamine in the brain, and the brains of food addicts show the same changes as the brains of hard-drug addicts.

Dr. Mark Hyman thinks food addiction could very well explain why 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. He also believes that the hedonic, addictive qualities of certain foods are deliberately increased to serve the profit motive.

For a concise, comprehensive overview of “Food Addiction in Children,” please see the poster created by Dr. Robert Pretlow, presented here as a PDF file. Although acceptance of the food addiction paradigm is not universal, more health professionals are adopting it every day.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Cracked: Life on the Edge in a Rehab Clinic,”
Source: “The End of Overeating, Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite,”
Source: “Food Addiction: Could It Explain Why 70 Percent of Americans Are Fat?,” The Huffington Post, 10/16/10
Image by, used under its Creative Commons license.

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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.

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