The Maladaptivity of Food Addiction

How did the cat get so fat?

In an essay describing how people use food to cope with emotional problems, Elizabeth Hartney outlined some resemblances:

There are several similarities between food addiction and drug addiction, including effects on mood, external cues to eat or use drugs, expectancies, restraint, ambivalence, and attribution. Neurotransmitters and the brain’s reward system have been implicated in food and other addictions. Food, drugs and other addictive substances and behaviors are all associated with pleasure, hedonism, and social, cultural or sub-cultural desirability.

Hartney notes the essential difference between food addiction and others. People can live without alcohol or methamphetamine, but they have to eat. From eating, you can’t quit “cold turkey.” An aspiring person can unhook from her or his biggest problem food and its food-group relatives, but not stop eating altogether. Even connected to an intravenous line, the body is still taking in nourishment because it must do that or die.

Food addiction is different in another way. Other addictions tend to cross over freely and share amongst each other. For instance, shame over alcohol addiction might spur a person into a fever of racetrack activity, to dull the pain. Or a gambling addict might get drunk to forget that he is ruining his family’s financial future.

But food addiction seem to have a particularly intense self-referential quality. When a food addict uses chocolate-covered bacon as medicine to relieve stress, there’s a very good chance that the stress itself is fat-related. The issue might be rejection by an attractive person. It might be a shopping trip that included insults from skinny sales clerks, or even a fear of developing diabetes. But whatever the issue is, it probably has something to do with food, the overweight or obese condition caused by food, and the emotional distress that can be alleviated by more food.

Hartney chooses a wonderful word:

Firstly, food addiction is maladaptive, so although people overeat to feel better, it often ends up making them feel worse, and gives them more to feel bad about.

In the larger, more general sense, as explained by William Heward, adaptive behaviors are the ones that ease our way in society. He names grooming, dressing, safety, cleaning house, and safe food handling as some adaptive behaviors. These are among the minimum standards for independent living. To fit into society successfully, a person needs to demonstrate the level of personal responsibility expected from her or his age group, and preferably, be able to do things like manage money, follow the rules at school, hold a job, and make friends. Just like alcoholism and other addictions, food addiction is maladaptive in relation to many of those expectations.

In the therapeutic sense, when a person does something that causes and maintains the very emotional problems from which she or he seeks escape, that’s maladaptive. Other words used to describe maladaptivity are faulty, unsuitable, inadequate, dysfunctional, non-productive, and inappropriate. “Maladaptive” covers a lot of ground. It’s the kind of word used by professionals who, if they were not professionals, might use the term “messed up” or even a descriptor more crude and less gentle.

In food addiction, the adaptation needed is a realization that putting too much of and/or the wrong kind of food into the body is self-destructive. This knowledge causes a lot of anxiety. The pushback from the person’s subconscious arrives in the form of an irrational belief: that eating something right now is the answer. In reality, while eating something right now might calm the anxiety, it is never the answer.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Food Addiction: When You Use Food to Cope Emotionally,”, 11/30/11
Image by Robert Brook.

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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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