Children, Grownups, Stress, and Obesity (Part 3)

Children at Play

To review for a moment, why does any of this matter? If children and teenagers feel stress, what’s the big deal? Some hardy, old-fashioned parents might say, “Stress is an unavoidable part of life, a condition they had better get used to because, as they get older, there is certain to be more of it, not less.”

That assessment is partly valid, as all grownups have had a chance to learn. Those youthful dreams of, “When I grow up, I’ll do anything I want and nobody can be the boss of me” are delusional. So yes, stress is an unavoidable element of life — that much is true. But should parents just say, “Get used to it”? Ideally, the aim of parents would be to help their kids not only become accustomed to stress, but learn how to cope with it in a healthy way.

Innumerable unhealthy ways of dealing with stress are modeled by too many adults. One is “stuffing down” uncomfortable feelings by smothering them with loads of hyperpalatable foods or, in a pinch, any edible substance. One stress-related mode of eating explains the popularity of crunchy inventions like chips. On some very deep subconscious level we can enjoy the sensation of crunching up the bones of our enemies. Chewy foods give the same satisfaction, exercising the jaw and burning off bad energy.

Stress eating and comfort eating are at bottom, different ways of saying the same thing. Kids overeat to ameliorate stress and achieve comfort. One of the disquieting truths that research has brought to light is the correlation between a child’s inability to control weight and the inability to do well in school. This alone is a very important reason for concern. But that’s not the only problem caused by stress, and the lack of healthy constructive ways to handle it, leaving only destructive ways of coping. Unbeknownst to their parents, kids are sliding into addiction.

Dr. Pretlow has quoted a paper by Lisa A. Briand and Julie A. Blendy, which says:

Studies in humans and animal models indicate that stress can lead to both vulnerability to develop addiction, as well as increase drug taking and relapse in addicted individuals. Exposure to stress or drugs of abuse results in long-term adaptations in the brain…

Since that report was written, many researchers have shown that certain foods light up the brain’s reward circuits just like cocaine and other drugs of abuse. In what might almost be called a practice run for later problems with addictive drugs, kids use the substances readily available to them: hyperpalatable snack foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, and so on.

Dr. Pretlow says:

It appears that food addiction in kids is on a continuum, with morbidly obese kids likely in addictive tolerance mode, where they eat more and more or higher pleasure-level foods to obtain the same degree of comfort.

Based on what tens of thousands of overweight kids have written on my website over the past 11 years, I am firmly convinced that actual addiction to certain foods, especially highly palatable foods such as junk food and fast food, is the main cause of the childhood obesity epidemic. Furthermore, these kids are in real pain, both physically and emotionally, from the effects of obesity on their lives.

There is substantial resistance to the addiction idea, both from mainstream medicine and the lay public. To deal with this problem we need to: 1) get obese kids unaddicted to highly palatable foods, and 2) prevent healthy kids from becoming addicted to start with.

Alan Fogel, Ph.D., titled his Psychology Today article, “Is your child stressed out? Why you may not know.” Strange as it may seem, parents often don’t know, as Childhood Obesity News has recently discussed. Dr. Fogel says:

Like adults, children don’t often connect the dots between stress, body dysfunction, and body sense. Adults need to teach children about these basic psychophysiological links, and we can only do that by example (not by a list of conceptual rules, demands, or judgments).

He points out that “you can’t think you way out of stress,” and indeed, thinking only makes it worse because of the futile draining of metabolic resources that are needed to actually deal with the sources of stress. He also offers some good advice that is worth clicking over to his article to read and take to heart. Why? So we can model for our children healthful ways of coping and, incidentally, do ourselves a heap of good at the same time.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Molecular and Genetic Substrates Linking Stress and Addiction,”, 11/10/09
Source: “Is your child stressed out? Why you may not know,” Psychology Today, 01/07/10
Image by iluvcocacola (Bill & Vicki Tracey).

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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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