Catching Up With Food Addiction, Part 1

Draped reclining mother and baby

Last time, Childhood Obesity News considered the story of Natasha Harris, a New Zealander whose death was attributed to her Coca-Cola addiction. In the comments appended to that story, a couple of really scary ones alluded to children. A woman addicted to soda pop says that her mother used to consume two liters of fizzy, sugar-sweetened drinks every day. Another mentions a friend who not only drinks Pepsi “all day long,” but has started a three-year-old child on the habit too.

One aspect of the Natasha Harris case escaped some people, but really stood out to others. Apparently, she smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes per day, which didn’t do her health any good, and which is definitely another addiction. What a layperson calls an “addictive personality” means that someone is under a compulsion to engage in multiple or serial addictions.

By now, the public has had time to get used to the idea that people who end their addiction to one thing will quite possibly move on to become addicted to something else. This has been one of the results observed from bariatric surgery. Some of those patients just make a lateral move, and wind up addicted to alcohol or even gambling. It happens because those patients are not being treated for addiction, but are merely having their digestive tracts pinched into unnatural configurations.

A red flag was raised nearly two years ago by addiction experts from the Washington University School of Medicine (which is not in Washington state or the District of Columbia, but in St. Louis, Missouri). Basically, they found that the same people who are at risk for alcoholism are probably at risk for obesity too. And it’s getting worse. Jim Dryden writes:

The researchers noted that the association between a family history of alcoholism and obesity risk has become more pronounced in recent years. Both men and women with such a family history were more likely to be obese in 2002 than members of that same high-risk group had been in 1992.

Even though both men and women are affected, the situation seems to be worse for women with a family history of alcoholism, who are more likely to become obese than men in the same situation. It’s all about cross-heritability, or the predisposition to a condition that also contributes the likelihood of a person having other conditions too. For instance, the alcoholic and the hard drug addict are often the same person, depending on which substance got to them first, and prone to depend on hard drugs if alcohol isn’t available, and on alcohol if their first drug of choice can’t be obtained.

The study’s first author, Richard A. Grucza, Ph.D., says that today’s food:

[…] contains the sorts of calories — particularly a combination of sugar, salt and fat — that appeal to what are commonly called the reward centers in the brain. Alcohol and drugs affect those same parts of the brain, and our thinking was that because the same brain structures are being stimulated, overconsumption of those foods might be greater in people with a predisposition to addiction.

Alcoholics themselves tend not to be obese, but Dr. Grucza, who is an assistant professor of psychiatry, suggests a scenario that could make their relatives obese. To paraphrase his theory, a daughter might be so dismayed by the effects of alcohol on her father that she will vow to never take a drink. But because the same tendency toward addiction exists in her, the daughter will become dependent on food to supply the same pleasure-center stimulation and fill the same emotional emptiness.

Citing the growing amount of scientific literature connecting hyperpalatable foods with the intrinsic addictive tendencies of humans, he suggests that obesity researchers should confer less with nutritionists, and much more with addiction experts. He is also convinced that the increase in cross-heritability is not to be blamed on the human genome, which has not altered since ancient times. He concludes that:

… [S]ome of the risks must be a function of the environment. The environment is what changed between the 1990s and the 2000s. It wasn’t people’s genes.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Risk for alcoholism linked to risk for obesity,”, 12/29/10
Image by foshie, used under its Creative Commons license.

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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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