More About BFRBs


In the previous post we saw how a lab rat in physical discomfort might deal with that feeling by eating as much as possible, even if the food is nothing special, but only mundane rat chow. In the first W8Loss2Go trial, Dr. Pretlow found that the main stumbling block for participants was the inability to stop eating too much at mealtimes. Hyperpalatable treats were not the temptation here, but standard nourishing food that would be perfectly fine in moderate amounts, and only becomes problematic with overconsumption.

This looks like a sign that a lot of unnecessary eating takes place for purposes other than fueling the body. Many times, people who can’t stop eating are looking for distraction, in the hope of escaping negative or uncomfortable sensations. This describes displacement activity.

Many former smokers say it isn’t really the tobacco they miss, but having something to do with their hands — the familiar motions of pulling a cigarette from the pack, maybe tamping the end on a flat surface, lighting the cigarette, blowing out the plume of smoke, tapping the ash… Where there used to be comforting repetitive behaviors, now there is nothing.

Eating addiction

During the years when Dr. Pretlow has been developing his ideas about food addiction, it has become clear that the condition could more accurately and appropriately be called eating addiction. Of course, when any aspect of the human condition is sorted out, there are always causes, effects, and associated phenomena that are neither cause nor effect.

Humans are notorious for being complicated. Dr. Pretlow has said:

I believe that stress eating is an entire realm of overeating that is fueling obesity, separate and distinct from comfort eating. Stress eating is likely even more contributory to obesity than comfort eating.

There are many nuances. Sensory addiction plays a part, because we seek the comfort we felt as babies, quaffing from breast or bottle. On the motor addiction and nervous eating bands of the spectrum, there is not only sucking, but biting, chewing, gnawing, crunching, and swallowing. They all play their parts in the behavioral addiction of overeating.

As it turns out, food addiction appears to be not so much a substance addiction as was previously thought. In other words, it’s more about sensation than chemistry. Or is it? There is plenty of evidence that many pseudo-foods are specifically engineered with the conscious intention of rendering them irresistible, which is a synonym for addictive.

Also, there are copious anecdotal sagas of people whose eating disorder fixates on one particular food. Still, it is undeniable that repetitive behaviors are incredibly captivating to the psyche. The whole concept of the hand-to-mouth motion as a powerful addictor is worth a separate discussion or at least a digression at some point.

Sleepy drivers are advised to chew gum, which is said to stimulate blood flow to the brain. So maybe chomping on popcorn really does help a student to study. Childhood Obesity News has written a lot about Horace Fletcher, the Guru of Chew who advocated extended mastication even after food is thoroughly pulverized. This body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB) undoubtedly aids the digestion, and may also promote mental health, by constituting a displacement activity that burns off a lot of emotional energy that might otherwise be misdirected.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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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.

Food & Health Resources