Enabling Food Addiction

Separated at Birth
People say, “How can food be called addictive? We need to eat.” But “food” covers a lot of territory, so it’s a difficult case to prove. When you narrow it down to one particular substance, however, the idea can be seen in a different light. Especially when that substance is sugar.

Not long ago, we mentioned the theories of Jeff O’Connell, author of Sugar Nation, and Jill Escher, founder of Sugar Addiction Awareness Day. To that discussion, Dr. Pretlow adds:

I don’t believe that sugar’s addictive qualities result from a direct effect on the brain, which Escher and O’Connell use to incriminate all carbohydrates. If this were true, then does salt have the same effect on the brain, resulting in addiction to salty snacks? Rather, it seems that it is a matter of the immediate pleasure of food sensations in the mouth — taste, texture, chewing, and swallowing — i.e. sensory signals that stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain, rather than a direct effect like a drug.

Bulimic individuals immediately purge pleasurable foods eaten, yet still develop addiction to these foods just like obese individuals do. Actually, the addictive effect of drugs may likewise be stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain, similar to sensory stimulation by pleasurable foods of those same pleasure centers.

Also, recently, we mentioned an article about sugar cravings by Gretchen Cuda Kroen, whose premise is:

Scientific evidence shows that children not only have a stronger preference for sugar than adults — but that sweet-tooth is hardwired from Day One.

So, it appears that extreme fondness for a potentially addictive, destructive substance is inborn. Apparently, kids are biologically programmed for sugar addiction, and then, as soon as they pop out, we start pouring sugary drinks into them.

As if that weren’t enough, as soon as they are old enough to understand the concept of tit-for-tat, we use sweets to bribe them into good behavior. This is nothing to scoff at. The bribery works on adults, too. When a bank gives out candy or doughnuts, it’s not the kids they are aiming at. Apparently, grownups’ love can also be purchased for the price of a nugget of dyed sucrose. Probably, few doctors or dentists distribute lollipops to children anymore, but it sure takes some folks a long time to wise up.

With sugar so ubiquitously used as a reward, that adds another layer of complication to its desirability. Aside from the intrinsic reward, that it tastes good and lights up the brain’s pleasure centers, it has value simply because it is a reward. Maybe kids would get the same satisfaction from having a gold star or some other token of achievement.

Children are encouraged to be sugar-dependent through every cultural method of persuasion. Their addiction is enabled, aided, and abetted. It’s almost obligatory. A kid who doesn’t like sweets, if such a one exists, is considered a very odd specimen indeed. Of course, there is a downside. How do strangers with bad intentions lure children into cars? With candy.

This is nothing new. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the evil temptress White Witch hands out Turkish Delight and promises poor Edmund whole rooms full of it if he would follow her home. An excellent piece by Rob Moll explains “Why You Won’t Like Turkish Delight As Much As Edmund Did” and quotes some very relevant passages from C. S. Lewis’s novel, re-quoted here:

Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious… At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat … When [Edmund] heard that the Lady he had made friends with was a dangerous witch he felt even more uncomfortable. But he still wanted to taste that Turkish Delight again more than he wanted anything else…

What does this remind us of? Could it be… food addiction? The White Witch alone knew the terrible secret. Edmund did not recognize that…

… this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Kids’ Sugar Cravings Might Be Biological,” NPR, 09/26/11
Source: “Why You Won’t Like Turkish Delight As Much As Edmund Did,” Christianity Today, 12/09/05
Image (modified) by Like_the_Grand_Canyon, 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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