Pulling Together Some Disparate Strands, Part 2

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From time to time, Childhood Obesity News explores such concepts as process addiction, displacement activity, and body-focused repetitive behaviors. Discussing the evidence for the reality of food addiction, Dr. Pretlow has said, about one of its aspects:

Rather than a delayed chemical response analogous to a drug, it appears to be the immediate pleasure of food sensations in the mouth — taste, texture, chewing, and swallowing — on which these youth are addicted. For example, bulimic posts describe immediately purging foods eaten, yet still obtaining comfort from the foods and exhibiting addiction to the comfort eating behavior.

Humans likewise exhibit displacement activity when under stress, such as nail biting, hair twisting, hangnail picking, and eating. Part of food addiction includes the action of eating — chewing, tongue movement, and swallowing — which is likely displacement activity, and, like nail biting, may be quite difficult to stop.

In an earlier post, we talked about Shades of Hope, a live-in addiction treatment center:

One of the things the Center is prepared to cope with is ‘process addiction,’ which is addiction to an activity such as gambling or shopping… or eating. It appears that food addiction is even more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Is it a chemical addiction — to the food itself? Or is it a process addiction — to the activity of eating? More than likely, it can start as one or the other, and then transmute into both.

Articles about stress eating are full of references to the tension-relieving efficacy of aggressive chewing, and of advice to make use of that natural tendency by substituting healthful celery or frozen blueberries for crunchy junk food. People who have dogs are very empathic and understanding about their pets’ propensity for chewing, as this example shows:

Just like people who eat junk due to stress, dogs can be emotional chewers too. In fact, many dogs chew on household items when they’re upset, frustrated or just plain lonely. Chewing soothes and comforts them… In fact, many of them go into a ‘semi-trance’ when they are chewing and tend to ‘zone out’ because they are enjoying themselves so much.

And we have all seen humans, perhaps even ourselves, enter that “semi-trance” zone. A person watching TV with a bag of potato chips resembles a robot, conveying a handful of chips from bag to mouth, over and over again, with mechanical regularity. The biting, crunching, chewing, tongue manipulation, and swallowing can all be stress-relief procedures, and the suspicion arises that eating chips (one of the biggest problem foods for obese kids) is part substance addiction and part process addiction.

Discussing the arcane science of creating hyperpalatable foods, Childhood Obesity News looked at how the addition of salt, fat, and flavorings will capture consumers with irresistible taste sensations. This taste bud orgy can combine, in the same snacking experience, with the pleasures of sheer tension-releasing mechanical action.

In other words, as Dr. Pretlow told the audience at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity, it’s not the food alone that has drug-like effects. Smell and taste are not the only senses involved in addiction-level eating. When animals feel threatened or confused or bored, they engage in all different kinds of displacement activities, including stress eating. It is behavior that displaces, or temporarily sets aside, the unpleasant sensation from which they seek escape.

People do the same thing. The pull at their hair or beards, or crack their knuckles, or pick at their skin, or stuff their oral cavities with malted milk balls. Momentary relief from anxiety is obtained, so they keep on doing it. Because it works, the brain and body both want to repeat it, and voila! It’s body-focused repetitive behavior.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Live-In Addiction Programs and Permanent Change,” Childhood Obesity News, 03/15/11
Source: “Understand Why Dogs Chew,” Yahoo Voices, 06/19/09
Source: “Compulsive Eating/Addiction Intervention for Obesity Implemented as a Smartphone App: A Pilot Study,” Weigh2Rock.com
Image by Tumblr.

2 Responses

  1. I hadn’t thought of food addiction in terms of a repetitive actions like biting nails (or in my case, I personally bite my cuticles). It’s a very thought provoking way to look at food addiction. Personally, I love crunchy items, and a big thing for me has been finding healthy low-calorie snacks that still provide the satisfying crunch (no butter popcorn has been a big life saver)… it isn’t about food for me, but the mouth-feeling of something crunchy.

    It also makes me wonder: given the nature of addiction and how addicts transfer one type to another type or often have multiple addicitions… would someone who chews their lips, nails, cuticles, or who has other repeated physical addictions like this be at a higher risk for food addiction? I wonder if there are any studies that link the incidence of one (say, nail biting) to the other?

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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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