The Universality of Addiction


Many health professionals believe that all addictions are one. The addictive personality will latch onto whatever addictor is most convenient, and, lately, for a large part of the world, that has been food.

At this point, opinion goes both ways. There is plenty of evidence that hyperpalatable foods are purposely engineered to be addictive. But is overeating a substance addiction? A mass of evidence points to overeating as a behavioral addiction. Probably, like so many other things, it’s on a spectrum, depending on the person and the environment.

The similarities that many seemingly different addictions have in common are astonishing. The ingenious human brain is always ready with a rationalization for anything it wants to do, especially when what it wants to do is pursue a substance or a behavior that will temporarily ease existential pain.

Here, from a well-known writer, are a few examples of junkie logic:

I must be at my very best to do what I have to do. If I can bring that off, I need never take it again.

I must show I am master of it — free to say either “yes” or “no.” And I must be perfectly sure by saying “yes” at this moment.

I am feeling very, very rotten and a very, very little would make me feel so very, very good…

Those quotations are from The Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley. He was talking about heroin, and Robert Anton Wilson said of him:

Crowley has great understanding of the addict mentality and the way the biological need for the drug can generate “reasons” that almost seem rational at the time.

Crowley enjoyed one of the worst reputations of any human being, but he shared many traits with millions of today’s overweight and obese people. Plenty of compulsive overeaters have thought, “It’s really not healthy to be so preoccupied with that ice cream. I’d better just go ahead and eat it, and stop obsessing about it.” That is a loose paraphrase of one of Crowley’s justifications, and he had a million of them.

A really sly mental gymnastic is to convince oneself that the only way to bring the substance use, or the behavior, to an end, is to keep on doing it. “The only way out is through,” someone might say.

Crowley wrote:

We can’t stop while we have it — the temptation is too strong. The best way is to finish it. We probably won’t be able to get any more, so we take it in order to stop taking it.

Probably the most dazzlingly familiar excuse that Crowley came up with is equally valid (or invalid) today. What if the person goes through the pain of withdrawal — and then gets hit by a bus? They could have had all that extra time to stay addicted, and would have chosen to, if only they had known that death by accident was approaching.

It is a well-known trope of addiction folklore that hard drug addicts have a ranking system, a hierarchy of what are considered high-class and low-class addictions. One of Crowley’s rationalizations is classic:

Most of us dig our graves with out teeth. Heroin had destroyed my appetite, therefore it is good for me.

He’s copping a superior attitude, with the subtle implication that food addicts are inferior to compulsive heroin users. The really interesting part is how easily the sentiment could be flipped. A compulsive overeater could just as reasonably claim the moral high ground by saying, “Most of those idiots kill themselves with drugs. At least food is healthy and natural.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Diary of a Drug Fiend,”
Source: “Sex, Drugs & Magick: A Journey Beyond Limits,”
Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann (Abode of Chaos) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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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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