The Most Addictive Substance


The more you look into the number one addictive substance behind childhood obesity, the more people you find who have seemingly devoted their entire lives and careers to the specific mission of warning us about it. Take Nancy Appleton, for instance. Her first book was Lick the Sugar Habit, and her most recent book is Suicide by Sugar. Are we seeing a theme here? We learn from her blog:

Dr. Appleton’s position is that allergies, degenerative and infectious diseases are related in their causes, a suppressed immune system. In the course, of her work she discovered… the chief culprit is sugar. She also found out that stress allowed to fester into distress has similar effects on our health.

With a gigantic problem like the childhood obesity epidemic, a lot of factors contribute, and one of them is confusion. Every day we hear about a new cause of childhood obesity that must be stopped, or a new cure for childhood obesity that must be implemented. Dr. Pretlow, of course, believes that the field can be narrowed down considerably by accepting that the biggest contributor is food addiction. If we concentrate on finding the cause of addiction and the cure for addiction, everything else could pretty much fall into place.

Dr. Pretlow also emphasizes the destructive nature of stress, which kids are not taught to handle in useful and effective ways. Stress multiplies upon itself, causing a vicious cycle, as he describes in Overweight: What Kids Say. Kids and teens comfort-eat to escape the various forms of pain they find in life. Then, obesity adds one more source of anguish, one more trigger to cause overeating, and especially indulgence in the hedonic, hyperpalatable foods that are purposely designed to be addictive.

Recovering food addicts can be found who swear by 12-step programs, exercise, raw food, prayer, bariatric surgery, reciting a mantra, self-hypnosis, or wearing only certain colors. For almost any therapy or technique or practice you can name, there is somebody out there who says, “It works for me!” Scientists must rigorously calibrate every facet of their research, and they resist anything that smacks of the anecdotal. The experiences of people outside the laboratory hold no interest for them.

Meanwhile, many health care professionals and ordinary, non-professional people have found answers that they are eager to share and urge others to try, whether or not the science is fully in place. And some things work for some people. But there may never be a silver bullet. Appleton spells out a couple of things that, in the rush to find the One Big Answer, we sometimes forget — no matter how many chemical processes our bodies carry out in common, we are all individuals. She reminds us,

Your genetic makeup plays a role in the way you’ll get sick if you abuse your body, but your lifestyle largely determines if you’ll get sick. This is one of the reasons why we don’t want to hear about your symptoms and only give general advice, because you’re all too different from everyone else… What disease you’ll get depends on your genetic profile and your genes’ interaction with your bad diet or unrequited stress.

It may be that a person’s genetic makeup dictates their susceptibility to addiction. A real smoker cannot comprehend the person who smokes one cigarette per day, after dinner. Yet there are, apparently, people who can dabble in nicotine use without becoming habituated. Is that a genetic trait? In the future, will we modify our children before birth, to eliminate the addiction-proneness gene? And lifestyle definitely goes a long way toward molding us. A cloistered nun, for example, may find ways to sustain an addiction to food. But cocaine? Probably not.

Appleton’s website includes a 7 ½-minute “Sweet Suicide” video clip. There is an interview with a guy who shoplifted Hostess products (stealing to support a habit is a major addiction red flag!) and who, like the smoker mentioned above, is amazed that anyone can eat a single cookie and stop there. Any sentence that begins with the words “Most people…” is actually kind of daring and bold.

Appleton’s food philosophy is summed up in a bold statement:

Most people are allergic to: sugar and most other sweeteners, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, dairy, chocolate, corn and anything that you eat with a lot of sugar or that you overcook. A person can be allergic to anything if they abuse it by eating it with sugar.

In how many ways do you suppose sugar is bad for your health? Five or six? A dozen? Nancy Appleton has identified 143 (ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-THREE) ways. Here they all are, together on one page. One of them, of course, is that sugar is an addictive substance. It is, in fact, according to Appleton and several other knowledgeable experts, the number one addictive substance.

Would anyone be surprised to know that this is all leading up to a call to action? Take the Sugar Addiction Quiz. Go on, do it, just for grins. (Appleton says, “If you take this quiz while eating a donut, you are addicted and don’t have to finish the quiz. Get help now!”)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Allergies & Disease,”
Image by colros (Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose), used under its Creative Commons license.

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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