The Wheat Conundrum

Even people who are convinced of the addictive tendencies of fat, sugar, salt, and miscellaneous food additives have trouble buying into the notion that croissant junkies roam the streets in search of a gluten fix. Is granting the addictiveness of wheat foolish, or far-sighted? What causes resistance against the idea? If wheat is not an addictor, why do so many people testify to their own experience of being addicted to it?

At the very basis of all this is the fact that addiction is still a big mystery with metaphysical implications. Alcoholics Anonymous, and the offspring 12-step programs tailored to fit other substances and behaviors, are widely acknowledged as the most successful paradigm yet devised. Patients are assured, “It works if you work it.” And still, for some people, it doesn’t work. The 12-step model has intellectual and philosophical detractors, too, the Higher Power concept being the major stumbling block for many.

But while not universally successful, AA works for enough people that it enjoys a venerable reputation. At the same time, there is acknowledgement that recovering addicts may not spend the rest of their lives entirely “clean.” They tend to turn around and get hooked on something else. In many cases, the substitution of a less damaging addiction for the previous, more devastating one, is considered a victory. A person might smoke two packs a day, but at least it’s not crack. This is leading up to a very important question.

Who is the expert?

When a former heroin addict has been off that substance for a goodly amount of time, but now states that she or he has developed an addiction for wheat products, shouldn’t that person be believed? Former heroin addicts are experts, so much so that they often become counselors and therapists to help others escape the thrall of opiates. If a person used to be in bondage to something much more hardcore, and goes on to become hooked on something softer like baked goods, presumably that person knows what he or she is talking about.

It appears to be not that rare for a person to emerge from rehab, having lost their addiction to alcohol or hard drugs, only to double their weight within a matter of months. Sometimes they start gaining right there in rehab, where the nuances of nutrition are often neglected.

Journalist Abby Ellin quoted eating disorder and addiction medicine specialist Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross:

The main focus was just, “get them off their substance,” and the rest will take care of itself.

This goes back to the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous, when the “Big Book” recommended that the recovering addict keep candy available to ease the discomfort. Ellin also quotes Christopher Kennedy Lawford, with 20-plus years sober:

When you’re used to shooting heroin or drinking a bottle of vodka, sugar seems really benign. It’s hard to take it seriously.

Journalist Ruben Castaneda quotes certified addiction treatment counselor Clare Waismann:

Many people who abuse alcohol and drugs struggle with depression, particularly when they’re trying to stop drinking and using drugs… Many alcohol abusers and drug abusers self-medicate to deal with emotions they can’t handle.

And what remains to self-medicate with, especially within the walls of an institution? Food. It’s cheap, it’s legal, and most of all, it’s there. If it’s sugar, or something that the body changes into sugar, that’s a problem. Sugar, says Waismann, provides a quick high and a corresponding deep crash, followed by depression, followed by increased craving for the drug of choice that brought the person into treatment in the first place.

This blind spot has begun to be perceived and addressed, in recent years, as the consciousness of cross addiction or transfer addiction has moved closer to the forefront, and the thinking around it has become much more holistic.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Off the Drugs, Onto the Cupcakes,”, 09/15/14
Source: “What’s the Best Diet for Newly Sober Alcoholics and Addicts?,”, 01/09/17
Photo credit: Marco Verch (wuestenigel) on BY

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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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