The Food Addiction — Eating Addiction Quandary


We left off with Dr. Pretlow’s thoughts about food addiction versus eating addiction, and his observation that amount addiction appears to be a very powerful force. Dr. John Menzies of the University of Edinburgh also finds it “more appropriate to think about chronic overeating in terms of an eating addiction.”

He is not happy with the substance addiction paradigm because:

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines it as a “chronic, relapsing brain disease” because longterm drug abuse can permanently change a brain’s wiring and how it works. Currently, Menzies argues, there’s just not enough evidence to show that certain nutrients or foods do the same thing.

But wait. Obesity, whatever its underlying cause, actually can be said to cause permanent changes in the body. For instance, a person can make new fat cells, but they never go away.

Apparently, obesity can also change the brain. Drs. S. Sharma and S. Fulton looked into the biological links between depression and metabolic disorders, with particular attention to diabetes and obesity.

Nutritional therapist Maria Zaretti framed the pertinent questions as follows:

Do you eat because you are depressed? Or are you depressed because of what you eat?

The Sharma/Fulton research had this objective:

To determine the impact of a palatable high-fat diet (HFD) on depressive-like behaviour and biochemical alterations in brain reward circuitry in order to understand the neural processes that may contribute to the development of depression in the context of diet-induced obesity (DIO).

As Zaretti explains the results, “excessive consumption of high-fat foods can cause chemical reactions in the brain ultimately leading to depression.” It’s all about dopamine, and changes in the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.

That actually sounds like the kind of permanent brain-changing that Dr. Menzies does not see happening. But as Zaretti again spells out:

Dr. Fulton draws a comparison with drug addiction whereby a vicious cycle sets in where “food-highs” are used as a way to combat depression. “In a similar way to illicit drugs” says Fulton “continually eating high-fat foods can lead to depression as the ‘come-downs’ take their toll”.

The report on the work of Drs. Sharma and Fulton, published by the International Journal of Obesity, concluded:

[…] that chronic consumption of high-fat food and obesity induce plasticity-related changes in reward circuitry that are associated with a depressive-like phenotype. As increases in striatal BDNF and CREB activity are well implicated in depressive behaviour and reward, we suggest these signalling molecules may mediate the effects of high-fat feeding and DIO to promote negative emotional states and depressive-like symptomology.

Zaretti further explains:

CREB is a molecule that activates genes involved in brain function including genes that dampen the reward-circuitry. Having high CREB may make the same-old dose of a “drug”, in this instance high-fat food, less rewarding and promote a negative mood state.

Here’s the thing. Striatal BDNF and CREB activity are things that happen in the brain. So to say there can’t be such a thing as food addiction, because food doesn’t make permanent marks on the brain, does not seem quite fitting.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Food Addiction vs. Eating Addiction: Why A Single Word Makes All The Difference,”, 09/23/14
Source: “Do you eat because you are depressed? Or are you depressed because of what you eat?,”, 08/23/16
Source: “Diet-induced obesity promotes depressive-like behaviour that is associated with neural adaptations in brain reward circuitry,”, March 2013
Photo credit: A Health Blog via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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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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